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Ismail Gulgee: The Gestural Interpreter of Islamic Calligraphy


Recreating the Islamic calligraphy with a unique abstract and gestural interpretation, and portraying the members of Afghan Royal Family and people of elite classes, the Pakistani artist, Ismail Gulgee, is celebrated as a globally famous Pakistani painter, whose Arabic calligraphy inspired abstract paintings and portrait paintings are highly admired in Islamic states and the rest of the world as well.

One of Pakistan's best-known painters, Gulgee was born on October 25, 1926, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Without receiving any formal education in painting, the self-taught Gulgee began to paint while studying hydraulics in the US. In 1950, he held his first exhibition in Stockholm, where he worked briefly as a design engineer.

After his higher studies, Gulgee came to Pakistan and held another solo exhibition in Warsak, near Peshawar, where he was involved in a dam construction project on the Kabul River. A gifted portraitist, he enjoyed regular state patronage and elite commissions throughout his career. In 1957, Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah commissioned Gulgee to paint his portrait, and subsequently invited him to Kabul to complete another 151 portraits of members of the royal family.

Famous as “the court painter of Pakistan”, Gulgee continued to paint both Pakistani and foreign dignitaries including US presidents Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan and Farah Pahlavi, Empress of Iran.

In 1960, Gulgee received his first extended exposure to abstract expressionism through an exhibition of American painter Elaine Hamilton in Karachi. Gulgee adapted action painting's energy and gesture to a Pakistani context, using virtuoso brushwork to produce large, free flowing calligraphic abstractions that captured the mystical dance of Sufi dervishes. In later decades, he embraced decoration, embellishing his canvases with gold and silver leaf, pieces of mirror and vibrant constellations of dots.

In the late 1960s, Gulgee began experimenting with sculpture, securing numerous commissions for large-scale bronze works of Koranic verses and Islamic symbols, such as the sculpture he executed for Islamabad’s Shah Faisal mosque in 1986. Though he had a high public profile across the Muslim world, he exhibited infrequently at home, citing lack of proper exhibition venues for his large scale work. A rare solo show at Karachi’s Indus Gallery in 1988 was followed six years later by an important retrospective at the National Assembly in Islamabad.

Gulgee was awarded by the pride of Performance, Hilal-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz in the recognition of his work by the Government of Pakistan. Eager to ensure his artistic legacy, in 2000, he inaugurated the Gulgee Museum near his home in Karachi.

On the evening of 19 December 2007, Gulgee was found murdered along with his wife Zarin Gulgee and his maid. He was buried in Karachi on December 20, 2007. He is survived by his son Amin, a prominent sculptor.




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