“I Need a Hero” Mural Introduces Female Heroine to the Gardner Museum

Earlier this month, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum welcomed the installation of Ambreen Butt’s, a Pakistani-American artist, latest piece of work,

“I Need a Hero,” on the museums façade. The piece is an extension of a series of the same name—a collection of miniature paintings depicting a female heroine—that she completed in 2005.

Butt’s vision for the façade was clear. It would feature a powerful female warrior standing proudly, making a statement. Butt created a mixed-media image overflowing with vibrant colors and textures crafted with impeccable detail to communicate her powerful message.

The towering façade piece illustrates a clash between the tenacious female heroine against a dragon and a monkey.

The action takes place against the backdrop of a dollar bill, a reference to the global economy.

While the piece is open for interpretation, Butt’s work is known to examine the ways women grapple with the use of their power.

As an artist well-versed in miniature paintings, Butt said that traditionally these paintings portrayed the role of a female through the gaze of a male artist. This female figure appeared seductive, calm, and serene.

Butt, however, felt the need to create a female heroine which had never been previously depicted.  

“There had never been a female heroine in the work of traditional miniature painting,” Butt said. “There were lots of illustrations of male heroes, but never female.”

Butt’s inspiration for her work became Mukhtar Mai, a young Pakistani woman who was raped after speaking out against her culture’s archaic codes of justice.



Despite the hardships Mai faced, she became a spokesperson for women’s rights. Butt admired Mai’s courage to come out and fight a system that is notoriously oppressive toward women.

When Butt was asked to create a piece for the museum’s façade, it came at a time of an increasingly-heated political climate where offensive rhetoric was being used toward women.

Therefore Butt felt that it was an opportune time for her female warrior to make a return.

“I named the title, ‘I Need a Hero’ because there was a need for this female hero at this time,” Butt said. “My goal for this piece is for it to be a gesture of hopefulness and inspiration.”

While describing her artistic process, Butt revealed that she prefers to take her time when creating her artwork.

In this instance, the work on the façade took two months to put together.

She hand-painted several images and scanned them to be refashioned digitally through photoshop.

When the piece was complete, she sent it to the museum who transformed it into a 16-by-36 foot image which was installed by the entrance of the museum.  

As a former artist-in-residence at the Gardner 18 years ago, Butt feels that it is fitting for her work to be showcased there. Butt admires the work of the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who she believes was radical and different for her time.

“This piece is very up in your face,” Butt said. “I think she would have liked that.”

For eight years Butt worked tirelessly with the heroine figure—so much so that prior to the façade piece, she began working on a new project highlighting text collages.

She decided to deviate from the figure in order to see if her work and talents had survived.

But she could not separate herself too much from the heroine, as she felt it was important for her new work to retain the essence of her character from the miniature paintings.

After earning her MFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Butt hoped her work would inspire the young artists studying in Boston. The Gardner is surrounded by many of the art schools in Boston, including the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Butt praised the museum for retaining the essence of Gardner and keeping up the spirit she left behind.

She noted that the museum remains traditional, yet manages to survive in a contemporary sphere.

With the Gardner being one of the most visited museums in Boston, Butt recognizes that her work will be viewed by many.

She hopes, however, that those who see her work will be able to take something from it and evoke careful thought. Butt values her artistic platform as it is her way of making her voice heard.

“Especially in these difficult times, I want this piece to be seen,” Butt said.

Featured Image by William Batchelor