Treasures from the Vault: Ambreen Butt

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Ambreen Butt was born in 1969 in Lahore, Pakistan. In 1993 she received her B.F.A from the National College of Arts in Lahore. Trained in classical Indian and Persian miniature painting, a time-honored tradition, her education included studying the old masters and their techniques, fashioning delicate brushes out of the tail hairs of squirrels, and making paper from cotton and silk. Miniatures, typically small in scale due to their use in manuscripts, necessitate painstaking care by the artist to create narratives built up in layers through small mark-making. Butt likens the practice to a meditative process. For her thesis, she embraced her new knowledge and skill to explore social-political issues, an unusual practice. 

Butt came to the U.S. in 1993 and earned her M.F.A four years later at Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, where she focused on painting, printmaking, and installation art. She synthesized her previous training and miniature painting sensibility while remaining responsive to contemporary events and stories. 

A print shows finely detailed, anatomically correct and colored mosquitoes in a vortex shape. Below them, a jaguar and antelope tumble in a death dance while the background is names in calligraphy.
Ambreen Butt, American, b. 1969. Say My Name. Lithograph on paper, 2018. Museum purchase, 2018.45.5. Image courtesy of FMWoA. 

Say My Name is the title of a series of related works in mixed media and prints that memorialize children who were killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her title mirrors the way the Black Lives Matter movement has recalled names of victims to ensure that they are a part of our collective memory.   

Anonymous, sanitized terms like “collateral damage” and “civilian casualties” have become ubiquitous in the media. Butt honors these young lives by writing out their names and thus restoring their identities. She, herself a mother, explains: “I started thinking that all these children’s names—they were people at one point, but now they’re nobody. Now nobody knows them, no one knows their stories. I wanted to give a name to the person who had existed.”i 

Despite its potentially dark subject matter, Butt’s work compels us to look closely. She remarks, “What I do is I take the broken pieces of society, I put them together and then I try to transform it into something very positive and beautiful, something that can be looked at and that can make people think—and that’s all I want.”ii 

Butt’s approach to her work is layered, always meticulous, and time-consuming. Her practice is reminiscent of the ritualistic process involved in miniature painting. In her mixed media works from the series she drew liquid from tea bags and manipulated the washes around the surface of the paper. The artist repeatedly wrote (or typed) the name and age of a child casualty, shredded the paper, and then glued the torn pieces onto the work (see video).  

Butt created two lithographs entitled the same when she was working with Landfall Press/Black Rock Editions. Together, their format takes on the appearance of the open pages of a book. FWMoA’s lithograph (read as the left sheet) required 10 plates with each layer adding a different colored ink, figures, and text.  Likewise, in this printed version, she applied the flowing tusche to create subtle stains in the border.    

Say My Name is composed of multiple levels of rhythmic patterns. Butt depicts mosquitoes in intricate anatomical detail with fluid-filled abdomens in a beautiful jewel-like red. At first, the swarm looks repetitive, but unlike mass-produced drones the insects are individualized by their uniquely drawn legs and antennas. The mosquitoes fly in a striking spiral design towards the center, a vortex. A richly colored cheetah attacks a blackbuck antelope and swirls conjoined in a floating dance. She borrows this grouping from a hunting scene from the 16th century Akbarnama by Mughal painters Miskina and Mansur. A child’s name is likely written in calligraphy in solid lettering and overlapped with ghost outlines that, together, form arabesques.   

Butt has had major exhibitions at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Museum, Boston and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The U.S. Department of State commissioned a work for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. She has received numerous awards including the prestigious Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. 


i Noelani Kirschner, “Ambreen Butt: Mark My Words,” The American Scholar (25 February 2019), https://theamericanscholar.org/ambreen-butt.  

ii Andrea Shea, “Pakistani Artist Known for Miniature Paintings, Goes Big With Female Warrior At The Gardner,” WBUR News (12 January 2017), https://www.wbur.org/news/2017/01/12/i-need-a-hero-gardner-museum

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