22 October 2005
Profile: Pakistani Artist Amin Gulgee
by Rajeev Nair, Bahrain

Art as spiritual quest

Amin Gulgee calls himself a “surviving dinosaur” in the world of art. The son of an accomplished painter, this Pakistani artist has earned a special place for himself in the international arena through his intensely spiritual metal sculptures and high-art jewellery pieces. His exhibition is currently on at the Artspace Gallery. Rajeev Nair met him in Dubai.

Art assumes many roles for Amin Gulgee, the accomplished Pakistani sculptor.

“I am an anachronism,” he laughs. “I don’t belong to the contemporary art scene of Pakistan. I am a dinosaur. My medium is copper-bronze, which is very labour intensive, and my techniques are really old. I am a surviving dinosaur…but I guess I have a role because I exist. I have been working for 15 years and I have done exactly what I felt like.”

Gulgee innovates upon tradition, and with every work, be they many-feet sculptures or just-inches jewellery pieces, he is on a constant journey of self-discovery through art. And unlike many other artists who keep their works in unreachable glass cases, Amin wants you to touch his works. He likes to connect with the audience.

Gulgee is intimately associated with “just art.” “I don’t teach art; I don’t write about art. All I do is make art, and I work six days a week. The most important thing for me is to make things. It is not what you make; the act of making is what is fantastic to me.”

The son of an accomplished painter, Amin was not encouraged to follow art as a career. He learnt Economics and Art History at Yale winning the Cogar B. Goodyear Fine Arts award for his thesis on Moghul Gardens, which was to trigger his interest in calligraphy. He however plunged headlong into the world of art, and started off with jewellery pieces.

He didn’t follow his father’s footsteps and paint because, “he paints,” smiles Gulgee. “He is big in painting. He is a legend. In art history, you don’t have second acts.” His father’s influence has been “discipline.” “Control gives you freedom,” says Gulgee. He repeats it to stress the point. “When I say, I work every day, I don’t say I make things every day. There are days when I tear down my work; it is easy to tear down your own work.”

Metal has been his forte, his passion, and this love for the now less worked on medium, also complemented his affinity to rediscover ancient civilizations. He inculcates motifs from Hinduism and Buddhism in his works even as he pursues the remarkable aesthetics of calligraph-art. He loves copper-bronze because “there is something ancient about it. It stays, even after the paintings are cracked and gone.”

But that is not his quest for immortality. “You are dead, you are gone. But when you do exactly what you want and somebody wants to make it theirs, I want it to last for them, not for me.”

“I think we need to reinterpret, revaluate and reprocess our old tradition, and it only shows how dynamic our culture is,” says Gulgee. “I come from the sub-continent, where there are different levels of spirituality. Having just come out of colonialism, we are still seeking a balance between our multi-level heritage and modernity. I am trying to seek inspiration from within rather than always from a Western source. When I came back from University 15 years ago, I felt the need to look within, and to seek inspiration from our mythology.”

Having grown up with the antique pieces collected by his parents, Gulgee does not believe in duplicating art. “I am not interested in replicating the past. I look into the passion that has gone into it. It is like bringing your own midst into the past and looking at it.”

Gulgee says he tries to understand himself with his art. “Who am I? What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be from the sub-continent?” And his answer, his understanding of himself, is that he is diverse. “There are many things that make me up as one; there are many things that make up as one from the sub-continent. You are very much a part of the land you come from.”

He believes that it is “perhaps” their spiritual level that lends his works a different dimension. “The sub-continent is a really funny place. Once you are from there, you are always from there. It doesn’t leave you alone. For some reason, there is a gravity to our land.”

He says today’s sub-continent artists are going through a dilemma. “When they say about global art, it’s all Western. The West is interested only in their topical issues, and our artists start incorporating those issues into their art, irrespective of their relevance. And yet, we come from such an old civilization of art.”

The answer to the dilemma, he says, is to keep the eyes open, be aware of whatever is going on and also be aware of who you are. “Be aware of your times but also be aware of where you come from.”

Personally, Gulgee says, he has learnt from both influences: American and the sub-continent’s. “You don’t have to give up one to get another. Let us respect each other; good work is good work.”

His works on jewellery is an extension, yet again, of the region’s vibrant jewellery culture. “I don’t approach them on a jeweller’s perspective though. I don’t make to orders. Every thing is one-off. If you like it, go get it. If you don’t like it, that is fine too. We have a lot of traditional jewellery and a lot of them are dying out. Maybe this will reawaken the tradition, and secondly, people actually touch it and wear it, and I really love this idea of your work touching somebody.”

He doesn’t want to be called a fashion artist because he doesn’t go after trends. “I use a fashion format though for my performance art. Fashion merely helps create an ambience.”

He has hosted a number of solo exhibitions in the US, China, Portugal, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, apart from regular showcases in his native Pakistan. Gulgee’s works adorn public collections at The International Monetary Fund; Jordan National Gallery; Hofstra University, Hempstead; and The WAH Centre, Brooklyn. His jewellery art has been the toast of many a fashion show/performance act, and he has been commissioned by illustrious organizations in Pakistan and abroad.

“I don’t sketch or draw my sculpture,” says Gulgee. “I make my object, and then sit on it. It is at the back of your mind. And then you start chopping and reassessing them. The jewellery pieces, however, are more instinctive and quick. They are my sketches, if you may.”

Recently, he completed a 40-feet sculpture out of copper, iron, steel, computer motherboards and glass, titled Forgotten Text. “Text (sacred text) for me is fascinating as it defines a culture and a civilization,” observes Gulgee. “The text I have used for this sculpture is from Mohenjedaro. It has been my endeavour, in the last 15 years as an artist, to lift text from the two dimensions of a page and bring it into the three dimensions of sculpture.”

The switch from 40-ft sculptures to one-inch jewellery pieces excites him. “I love that change of scale; it keeps me fresh. From large sculptures you move to highly detailed pieces.” He also sees a dialogue between the larger and smaller pieces.

His association with motherboards started when he was commissioned to create a piece for IBM. “I tried to understand the computer and started smashing computers. I was fascinated with what I saw in its innards. The grid reminded me of cities from space; it reminded me of perfect calligraphy, and I became passionate with that.”

A recipient of the Indus Vision Young Achiever Award and Excellence in Art Award from the Sindh Government, Gulgee currently hosts an exhibition of his works in Dubai at Artspace, the gallery on the ninth floor at The Fairmont Dubai.

Rajeev Nair
Location: Bahrain
A journalist with twelve years experience in newspapers and magazines; currently senior reporter/feature writer with a Bahrain daily