Asim Butt, 1978 - 2010
My friend Asim passed away on Friday.
People will remember Asim as one of the great minds of his generation. They will remember him as a great artist. They will remember him as a rebel, a true believer in the power of struggle. They will remember him for the many incredible things he did and the incredible body of work he left behind.
I will remember him as all these things as well. But most of all I will remember the warmth Asim radiated. I will remember the affection I felt in his presence. And most of all I will remember his stature. I was in awe of Asim for all these things.
Asim's younger brother Ahsan is a close friend of mine from college. I got to know Asim through him. The first time I met Asim was at a friends house, at a dinner. Upon being introduced to him, I blurted out how much he resembled Ahsan. Asim took mock offense and reminded me that Ahsan was the one who resembled HIM. We had a long conversation that night, he found out I was a musician and we talked about bands and performance and art. I didn't know too many artists at that time. I had a stereotype of them as being quirky stoners who were airheaded, overly obsessed with emotions and frankly I thought most of them were pretentious.
But Asim wasn't a typical artist. He had a fierce intellect, he was incredibly self aware and he had an opinion about everything. Not just an opinion gleaned from conventional thinking, but well thought out, well articulated opinions that put me, for once at the listening end of a conversation. I thought Asim was simply humouring me because I was his brothers friend. But I think he sensed that he had broken down a lot of preconceived ideas I had about art and artists. I remember him inviting me to come by his studio, I was touched by his invitation, I didn't think artists like to share their space and I made a mental note to take him up on his invitation.
I had no idea at the time that I was speaking to such an outrageously gifted man. I had never seen his art, until I went to his first exhibition called "Tableaux Noirs" at Zenaini. In fact that was the first art exhibition I had ever been to in Pakistan. I went solely because of Asim.
I remember the first time I saw one of Asim's painting. I remember the exact sensation. I felt like I had been hit in the chest. I felt like the colors from the canvas were touching me. Not just touching me, they were grabbing violently at me. I remember how vivid his work was, until then most paintings I had seen could best be described as passive. Not Asim. His work was alive, it was angry, it was funny, it seemed to rise up out of the canvas and dance in front of you. His figures were in a constant state of animation, and the loving detail to every muscle, every hair, every sinew of flesh was a kick to my consciousness. The paintings showed real people, real animals, real buildings everything was so vivid and real and yet it was a work of art. He made the dirty, the grotesque, the ignored seem beautiful and alive. You couldn't take your eyes off them.
That exhibition of Asim's sold out in record time. It was unheard for such a young artist. I wasn't surprised at all. He was creating a buzz. When I spoke of him, people referred to him as the next big thing to come out of Pakistan. When I talked to younger artists, especially from Indus Valley, they all idolized Asim. His work and commitment were legendary. He was an inspiration to so many.
Asim was the first artist whose work touched me. Maybe I was finally old enough to appreciate art, or maybe my perspective on the world had changed so I could appreciate what he was doing. But he was the first, and for the longest time, the only art I had any time for. I never missed any exhibition that had his name on it after that.
Asim and I continued to meet after that. Most of the time he'd be up late at night on facebook and we'd chat about everything under the sun. He'd recommend new music to me and excitedly send me emails with a long list of artists and pieces of music I should listen to. I couldn't keep up with him. He was intense, and passionate and had a childlike enthusiasm that was contagious. And while he was obviously smarter, better read and infinitely more talented than I could ever hope to be, I never once detected a tone of condescension in his voice.
Asim was an artist, but he was also that rare breed of artist, a true rebel. One moment he was a studio artist exhibiting work for the elite of Karachi in the most posh of art galleries, the next minute he was out spray painting graffiti in the dead of night. Like a modern day superhero, Asim would stealthily dart in and out of locations and spraypaint his message, using the simplest of symbols.
His 'eject' signs starting popping up all over the city during the last days of the Musharraf presidency when the protests took place. He wasn't just a passive, hidden protestor, he would actively take part and organize demonstrations. Most people will tell you they don't care about what other people think of them. Asim truly didn't. He simply didn't think like you and I did. Where you and I would think of the problems, the obstacles and reasons not to do something, Asim thought only of the goal, the achievement and the reasons something should be done.
He spoke to me one night of organizing a massive protest to stop the demolition of the beautiful and historic Hotel Metropole facade in Karachi. While I gently tried to point out the reasons he would fail, Asim simply didn't grasp the concept, or back down. He was always looking for a way. Its not that he was naive, or ignorant. He truly believed that anything could be done. That is why to me, Asim is the only true rockstar I have ever known.
His strength, his single minded determination to do the right thing and never compromise on his belief were an inspiration to me. I wanted to emulate him. And more than anything I wanted to impress him. Since Asim was so generous with his compliments, you always felt good around him, but I wanted his genuine approval, I wanted him to see me as an artist as well.
I invited him to every single ADP show, but he always refused, citing his aversion to large crowds. It became a running joke between the two of us, and I would tease him about what I thought was his irrational fear of people. Finally he showed up, without telling me, at the last Shaanaakht gig we did. It was one of our best shows to date. I guess Asim's incredible aesthetic sense told him to pick the right time to see us. He told me later how much he enjoyed the show, and how thankful he was that I wasn't some 'bubblegum' pop singer. (Asim's only previous exposure to us was watching the 'Nazar' video on youtube and according to him, this dented my rockstar credentials considerably). His short, simple praise meant so much to me.
The last time I met him was almost exactly a week ago, the Sunday of Open Mic Nite. I was running around, harassed trying to manage the immense crowd and was fretting about my own performance. I spotted Asim in the crowd and waved out to him. He flashed me a big smile and waved back, I called out to him reminding him of how much he hated crowds, yet here he was in the middle of the most congested, uncomfortable and raucous crowd we had seen in a long time. He looked visibly flustered, threw his hands up and said he was leaving. I smiled. It was enough for me that he had simply shown up.
That's how I'd like to look back on Asim's short but very special time on this planet. He was in my life for a very short time. But it was enough for me, that he had simply shown up.
Here are some of my favourite pieces, both paintings and graffiti by Asim
Other peoples tributes, and links about Asim.
Asim's Wikipedia Page
By Imran Khan, at Al-Jazeera
A Journey Through Pakistan by Adrian Fisk
Beena Sarwar's tribute
Finally two video tributes