Ambreen Butt, Untitled, from the series Bed of My Own Making, 1999. Watercolor, gouache and thread on Mylar, and paper. 14 × 11 inches (35.6 × 27.9 cm). Promised gift of Barbara Lee. © Ambreen Butt
A student of Persian and Mogul miniature painting, Ambreen Butt expands on the format of this ancient technique to produce works laced with historical reference and contemporary resonance. With intimately scaled imagery on overlaid sheets of stitched Mylar and paper, she weaves open-ended narratives that are both physically and conceptually layered. Butt’s experience as a Pakistani Muslim in the pre– and post–9/11 climate of the United States has grounded her depictions of a recurring heroine gracefully poised in the face of conundrum, entanglement, and identity struggle.
The 1999 series Bed of My Own Making introduced Butt’s female protagonist, replicated and looped in cycles of impending calamity. While loosely based on the nayika, a seductive heroine who leads viewers into the action in Persian painting, the figure at the center of the action in Butts’s work is herself; she is both perpetrator and target, cause and effect. In Untitled, a lone figure, shown in profile, holds a lit torch. She appears to be about to step forward, yet her hair, so long that it coils around her ankles, moors her to a tree behind her. Capable yet caught, empowered yet facing consequences, the heroine is in a universal situation that Butt says is “about making choices and living with them for better or for worse.”
Butt was the first recipient of the ICA Artist Prize (now the James and Audrey Foster Prize) in 1999. The addition of this piece thus marks the ICA/Boston’s history and enriches the collection of works on paper, contributing to the museum’s strength in figurative work and expanding its global reach.
Promised gift of Barbara Lee