PITTSFIELD -- Mughal miniatures often illustrated scenes in books, like illuminated manuscripts, says Boston artist Ambreen Butt, who learned to paint them one mark at a time in her native Lahore, Pakistan. And books were rare in the Mughal empire, in southern Asia in the 14th-century.
It was an intimate experience to look at a painting in a book, to hold it in both hands, she said. It was also privileged, because few people could afford books -- or read them.
Her work now focuses on mark-making, playing with that miniature tradition. A play of abstraction and figures blend, from a distance, into geometric patterns: a ring of seated women, a woman's braided hair, or swirling schools of fish.
The fish, she said, come from a pond in the emperor's palaces. To amuse the princesses, they would put a gold ring in a fish's nose, so they would see it when the fish swam.
She sees this scene from the women's and from the fishes' perspective: "you think you're free," she said, "but are you?"
In one of her works in "Islam Contemporary," a woman in a red dress twists in pain, with a police helmet above her. She is a Pakistani heroine, a recognition of women fighting today.
"There's a fine line between my studio and the world," Butt said
She paints from what she sees and feels. She returned to Pakistan for a visit after 12 years in the States, she explained.
"A lot had changed," she said. "This was not the country I had left."
Violence and protests blocked her route to Lahore.
Women, protesters, were herded into police vans and packed in, screaming. The woman in her painting strains forward in the space inside the illuminated golden border, beaten by police, hit with a stick.
Butt wanted to focus on the woman and her pain. The police helmet would be enough, she said, to show who struck the blow.
Around her painted woman, schools of fish swirl inward.
"I had seen fish in a net," she said, "when they are packed in and can't breathe."
A night-blue butterfly hovers below Julia Morgan-Leamon's watercolor cityscape of Cairo, pinned to the painting.
In the upheaval in Egypt, she explained, soldiers stomped on a woman and ripped off her jalabiya, her robe, exposing her blue bra. After this attack, Morgan saw an image of the Egyptian flag that showed, in progest, the blue bra, and it looked to her like the open wings of a butterfly.
She has painted cityscapes of Cairo in layers of watercolor and paper. To give a feel for the depth of experience, materials, histories, architecture, sociology, the
From her balcony in Cairo, she could see informal buildings, buildings that go up quickly without codes or permits, topped with satellite dishes, giving her a teetering feeling -- and ancient arcitecture, lighted stone mosques -- and British buildings downtown -- and painted Pharoahs looking down at the streets.