November Issue 2014
Book Review: Rebel Angel
Tumultuous, seething, driven… artist Asim Butt’s oeuvre seems to have mirrored the workings of his inner life. His tragic death in 2010, at the age of only 32, shook the Pakistani art world, which mourned the loss not only of a painter whose intensity of thought and feeling spilled over into his canvases, but of a humane young man and a gentle, if agitated, soul. A monograph of his work, Rebel Angel is a tribute to this restless spirit. The substantial volume offers a collection of Asim Butt’s paintings and sketches, accompanied by essays written by former teachers, curators, friends and others who admired or were in some way moved by his work.
Edited by curator and critic Nafisa Rizvi, Rebel Angel is impressive in terms of design and printing quality. The book jacket features a self portrait of the artist. Strong black strokes against a dark gray background, conveying the subject’s intense stare, produce a compelling effect. The clean, spare design of the text and photos inside continues to engage.
The book is thematically divided into sections which delve into the different aspects of the artist’s work, from the psychological and personal to the academic and practical.
Artist Naiza Khan, who was Asim’s drawing teacher at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, takes a look at the artist’s sketchbook. This must naturally be the breeding ground for his paintings, a personal chronicle of his creative search not meant for the public eye. As someone who grapples with the creative process herself, Naiza brings an empathy to her perusal and analysis of Asim’s ideas, experiments and efforts as revealed by the book. Her familiarity with the artist and his ideas aids in this process, since she can see how reflective his notes and sketches are and she can recognise the development of ideas which underpin his work.
Asim Butt’s own voice emerges in an interview conducted by columnist Huma Yusuf, as well as in a paper written by him about the illustrative aspect of art. In the interview, given before a solo exhibition in Islamabad, he talks about his love of oil paints, the tactile and physical qualities of which seem to have some atavistic pull for him, and about the joys and fears that precede a public showing.
Nafisa Rizvi gives readers a biographical sketch of the artist’s life leading to an analysis of some of the most recurring themes in his work. The paintings are provocative and disturbing. Asim Butt was deeply affected by life. He shunned conventionality and the mainstream. Every painting of Asim’s is clearly a quest to comprehend the human condition, to realise the consciousness that goes beyond the self. The critic discusses the dominant figurative aspect of his paintings, his depiction of the human form as well as his fascination with animals, which are not just totem spirits but seem to share a human consciousness.
An aspect of Asim Butt’s work that should not be ignored is his foray into social and political activism. Having sought a space on the fringes of conventional society himself, Asim was drawn to mingle with the other marginalised souls who inhabit the city and would often hang out at the Abdullah Shah Ghazi mazaar in Karachi. Here, he took to painting murals that brought his discourse into public spaces.
Deeply moved by the social and political malaise afflicting us, he turned his art to activism in order to register protest and lobby for political and social change. During the lawyers movement he anointed the city with political graffiti. He even adorned a public bench outside Minar-e-Pakistan with ideologically sensitive writing. In 2009, accompanied by a photo journalist, Asim travelled through the length of the country creating graffiti on walls and objects in a tour, titled ‘Graffitti Yatra.’ A CD of that undertaking also comes with the book.
Perhaps the most engaging section of this volume comprises personal accounts about the artist. With his gift for story telling, novelist H.M. Naqvi hooks the reader with his tale of how he ended up as the subject of a painting. Drawn together by shared artistic concerns and the feverish need to create, the two became friends with Naqvi dropping in at the artist’s studio to discuss matters of intellectual and aesthetic interest.
In her essay, journalist and gallery owner, Sairah Irshad Khan, remembers Asim as an intense young man to whom she gave his first solo show. In fact, she knew the artist from childhood and recalls his precocious announcement (“I’m going to be an artist”) at the tender age of nine. Drawn by the haunting power of Asim’s work, she also recalls his realisation of any flaws and his willingness to labour extensively to conquer them.
Theatre director, Zain Ahmad, simply recalls Asim as a quirky young man who had yet to make his mark. It is not Asim Butt the artist or the activist whom he writes about. He remembers him simply as a young student finding his feet in Lahore or a friend who painted a mural on his wardrobe. The book closes with some arresting photographs of the artist taken by photographer Arif Mahmood.
Throughout his brief journey, Asim Butt was clearly delving into the human state, seeking answers and searching for balance, as revealed by his psychologically arresting works. Rebel Angel tells the story of this quest. We catch glimpses of the demons that chased him and the almost palpable flutter of his caged spirit that was searching for release. This is a labour of love on the part of his family and friends.
But Asim Butt was still developing as an artist. He had not as yet established his place in the pantheon of leading Pakistani artists. For art historians and art students, this monograph has to be seen in that perspective. But perhaps the book doesn’t seek to establish his stature for posterity. That is for others to do. His skill had yet to mature. This is simply a chance, for anyone who cares, to get to know a young man who felt the pain of the world too keenly.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the headline, “Angel and Demons.”
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.