Ismail Gulgee loved to paint so much so that he once said, “I find it difficult to speak about my paintings because the act of putting together words only explains and cannot make real the experience, which for me, is the only reality, the only value that gives meaning to my life. I live only when I paint.”
And he continued his painting journey till the end of his life. The legendary artist Ismail Gulgee met a mysterious death at the age of 81 on December 19, 2007. The tragedy resulted in a deep loss to the art world.
Born in Peshawar in 1926, Gulgee was an award-winning, globally famous Pakistani artist. He made his name in the 50s as a portrait painter. He began to paint abstract compositions in the American style called ‘Action Painting’ in the 60s.
He had nothing to do with Islamic calligraphy but it so happened that in 1969 he was commissioned to design a round copper shield of six feet diameter to adorn the stall of Pakistan’s Export Promotion Bureau in Expo ‘70 at Tokyo. Along the rim were forty round designs showing in symbolic form the various exports of Pakistan and in the centre were calligraphic inscriptions in the form of a round medallion.
In the same year he designed a huge round bronze emblem for the Muslim Foreign Ministers’ Conference that was held at Karachi.
It was in 1973 that he began using calligraphy in his paintings. In that year, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh on the subject of Muslim unity. After doing this, he produced another calligraphic painting on the same subject for the Islamic Summit that was held at Lahore in 1974.
It is full of multicoloured dots and daubs of colour, in which even gold and silver have been used. Against this background has been calligraphed a famous verse of the Holy Quran exhorting the Muslims “to hold fast to the rope of God and not to disunite”. These words sweep in an arc from the bottom right to the top left corner. The style of writing was roughly in the Naskh script rather freely rendered.
There is yet another mural in the King Faisal Hospital which is largely made up of Quranic verses on the subject of healing. This calligraphy is executed in silver and gold and at the centre of the design is a picture of the holy Black Stone of the Ka’aba (Hajr-e-Aswad).
Gulgee made much more profuse use of calligraphy when he was commissioned in 1975 to build a gigantic monument at Clifton in Karachi. He created some sort of an abstract sculpture with pieces of a broken aircraft. On the metal surface he wrote Quranic verses in silver and gold.
To many of his calligraphy paintings Gulgee added gold and silver paint, reminiscent of the use of these precious materials in old manuscripts. He was also known for using materials such as mirror glass along with gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings, so that they were in fact mixed media pieces.