THE age of industry and the revolutions that accompanied it provide a very fertile basis for all sorts of creative activity. In art, it has resulted in a couple of centuries of production of a wide variety of artworks that can vie with all the golden ages of art history put together. To create, survive and make one’s presence felt at such times is no easy task. And those who do, like Ismail Gulgee, Amin Gulgee’s father, and Amin himself, do so on the basis of a deep understanding of the development of material culture over time, its linkages with the world of ideas, and the capacity of an artist to create objects that are thought-provoking but are at the same time repositories of profound realities.
Indeed, we have traversed a long history of freeing aesthetic expression from the limitations imposed on it by religious dogma, political pressures and the blandishments of the market to tread along the winding path that links the personal with the universal and the material with the conceptual. A truly good artist not only understands these continuities but is also capable of seeing the place of each of his creations in these, both by innovating with the material of the past and by making a break from it to develop a milestone for the future.
Not everyone is capable of doing this as successfully as Amin Gulgee has done in his latest exhibition of sculpture and video art, “Through the Looking Glass”, which was shown recently at the Galerie Romain Rolland in New Delhi by the Nitanjali Art Gallery. The theme of the exhibition goes back to Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland. If the first book was a tongue-in-cheek confrontation with the wonderlands industrial society likes to blind one with, his second, published around the time of the Paris Commune, makes one playfully aware of the distortions of the truth these visions constitute.
So I was not surprised to be confronted with a large mirror chessboard with metal chapatis on it, which could also be ancient Egyptian sun discs, ranged like chessmen that one could move to “play the game with”. It is called “Cosmic Chapati 48: Hunger Game”. It invited one to enter the arena of the politics of hunger being played out in so many distortions such as the destruction of stocks in overproducing countries while there is famine in others; in grain rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India and being denied to the poor “because there is no constitutional provision for it”; food aid being supplied to countries at inflated rates; or worse, food embargos being used as a political weapon, as was done against India during the Public Law 480 period and as has been done against Cuba since the 1960s and against North Korea. With these ideas shooting through one’s head, one almost does not want to play the game. But then I remembered how India did play it once: it sent a shipload of grain to Cuba to challenge the embargo, and the bread made from it was stamped with India’s name on it. So I picked up a chapati and moved it one square forward.
It is fascinating how the artist’s structuring of the sculpture not only brings to mind the struggle over food and the attempt to use it as an instrument of oppression but also reminds one how the oppressed used the same symbol against the oppressor in 1857, when chapatis were circulated among the rebels to unite them against the British. The universality of bread makes it a particularly powerful symbol of resistance. Even the oppressor cannot ignore its appeal.
This symbol of unleavened bread in the form of a copper disc with concentric circles of wire links its grain to the source of its energy, the sun, with the farmer’s effort as an unseen link between the two that the sculptor’s hand takes over from to give one a symbol he then replicates in many variants such as “Cosmic Chapati Unknown Centre”, “Folded Chapati” and “Three Folded Chapatis” to allow one to evoke not only concerns of hunger and its satiation but also the importance of food production and its link with both environmental and ethical concerns.
That this young sculptor is able to relate to and innovate on such universal iconography without damaging the beauty and simplicity of his work is commendable.
Another symbol he innovates with successfully is the crossroads, which in ancient society were necessary for barter and trade and became centres where peace and harmony had to be imposed for everyone’s benefit. This imposed harmony became an aesthetic symbol in Persian garden design as far back as the 6th century B.C. and was brought to India as the Char Bagh (four garden) pattern, enclosed by a wall.
“The Mughal gardens of South Asia can be divided into three categories: the palace garden, the autonomous garden and the funerary garden, in which the mausoleum was usually placed at the centre of the Char Bagh. In all three, the Char Bagh organised the space,” says Amin Gulgee. The sculptor explains: “The Mughals created their own style of architecture in their gardens by combining the geometric Persian influence with the organic traditions of South Asia. This combination of the geometric with the organic is fascinating for me in the context of the garden.”
This has materialised in his work as four rectangular frames, with mirrors at the top and bottom that give one an illusion of endless space, eternity if one likes, with individually crafted leaves descending like those in the European autumn or the South Asian summer. But here we have another concept at play: the structures are based on formal, universal principles, but the leaves are individual elements strung from thin wires. Here one sees him concretely presenting the relationship of the individual with the universal, the free-floating nature of the individual with the abstract nature of universal concepts of time, without losing the individual character of each concrete moment in life.
The individual, however free-floating, is only a word in a language, or, to put it in visual terms, a letter or an ideogram in a script. So it is no surprise to one that Amin is keenly involved in scripts, even inventing in a work called “Me in the Matrix”, in which individual features of the artist with their individual idiosyncrasies become a recognisable face, a form. Moreover, once the facial elements are reassembled in the social matrix, they become an identity over and above the biological being. From here, one moves to his narrative sculptures based on Quranic inscriptions.
Quite expectedly, the verse of the Quran that he chooses is the Iqra: “Allah taught man that which he did not know [Allamal insana Ma’ lam ya’ lam’].” Once more one sees consciousness imposing itself on the chaos of nature. But interestingly, the chaos and the individual solutions the artist choose to impose, on the one hand, go beyond his consciousness into the realm of the original, on the other. The cursive script relieves itself of meaning and becomes a form that the hand flows with, dredging out realities as yet unfathomed from our South Asian tradition and the artist’s subconscious appropriation of this, as in his works where the Arabic script becomes images of Ganesha and Krishna, or buffalo horns become a variant of the symbol “Om”.
“I was not conscious of these iconic images,” he says, “But I was brought up in a house full of antique sculptures and made many images of Ganesha and Krishna. So probably the hand flowed in the same direction when I made these works.”
This is an experience many artists have had, when the chisel, the brush or the pen takes its own course on the basis of the material, guiding the hand of the creator along its own lines. Often the same spirit guides the scale of a work. One may sculpt a small work first and then it demands a greater space, as his buffalo horns do or his “Dragon Spider”, which could well be a dancing Krishna, does.
It is obvious that his flights beyond the frame succeed as they do because of his training in art history, economics and architecture at Yale and because he worked with his father, who was an engineer trained at Columbia and Harvard.
It is his deep understanding of aesthetics, too, that allows him to experiment with video and performance art, as his “Love Marriage”, which not only has his training in dance behind it but also gave birth to two sculptures, “Marriage Bustier” and “Marriage Helmet”, reminding one that a good artist must show expertise and professional execution apart from having good ideas. This is Amin Gulgee’s strong point and will carry him forward to new heights because in trying times one needs works of confidence and hope that break out of the moulds of the past to create new icons for the future.
Finally, exhibiting an artist from Pakistan has a special meaning for Indians as we share a common iconic tradition going back to Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal, just as India and Bangladesh both have national anthems written by Rabindranath Tagore.
- At the same time, we share bonds of culture with Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar and China. It is a pity we do not concern ourselves enough with these to enrich our home-bred culture even after Independence, when colonial rule is no longer a constraint to extending our ties among our neighbours.
Amin Gulgee and I spoke at length about his work as a sculptor a little over a year ago. At the time, in writing about him, I had spoken of his practice being reflected in the title of his (then) recent show, ‘Through The Looking Glass’ at the Nitanjali Art Gallery in New Delhi (September 2013). We talked for some time about Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, and what an amazing and complex metaphor Lewis Carroll had woven into this story through the bizarre and seemingly nonsensical events that take place once Alice has moved through the surface of the looking glass – or down the rabbit hole. I told him about Deleuze’s essay on Lewis Carroll and how he speaks of Alice’s conquering of surfaces: how, as she moves through the looking glass, she comes to create and pass in between other surfaces, sites that do not occupy a real world but are worlds that are real nonetheless. In the mirror, an event occurs, one that is not an act of mere imitation, but of reflection and alteration. It represents, but it draws the thing that it represents into its own space, a space in which nothing is as it seems. Things are turned upside down, inside out; characters stand on their heads and she is never quite ‘right’ – too big, too small, not ‘like herself’, Alice who is not quite Alice.
At the time, I did not realize that this would become almost as a premonition, a metaphor for the work that we would do together as curators later. At the time, discussing Alice and the spaces that she comes to occupy, Amin likened this to the experience of going into his own workshop; a space of madness and order, where things are never quite as they seem to be and one never knows how one will eventually come to navigate through its space: “an endless journey where questions have no answers but only lead to more questions.” Amin’s practice is nothing if not spiritual, inward looking, deconstructive, unendingly breaking open the familiar in order to reveal the new – rethinking, reimagining, reassembling – and at its’ nucleus are his studio and workshop. “This is the place where acts of creation occur and reality is challenged, configured and reconfigured again and again in a consistently evolving practice that submerges itself, through a continuous exploration of persisting concerns, in an act of difference and repetition through which new events are allowed to transpire and alternate spaces come to exist. In this process the artist himself is formed and re-formed time and time again, his face made whole, broken, reassembled, turned on its axis, flipped on its head.” (ZS, 2013)
Faces, hands, leaves, calligraphic texts, geometric forms that fuse with the organic in an unrelenting exploration of form and space – these are all recurring motifs in Amin’s work. A philosophy of repetition that resonates with the spirituality inherent in the act of repetition in Islamic Art. Where complex geometric patterns come together to create a seemingly unending repetition that alludes to the infinite nature of God, they also indicate the importance of the small, singular element, through the repetition of which one is able to aspire towards an infinite whole. In addition, Amin’s materials of choice (bronze, copper) are elemental, alchemical, evocative of nature and the earth – the magical and the spiritual, and of course, the human.
These are and have long remained the concepts at the core of Amin’s practice: themes of life, birth, death, humanity, spirituality, creation, destruction, mortality, love –themes that fall neatly under the umbrella of the ‘metanarrative’ or the ‘grand narrative’, the incredulity towards which was one of the defining features of the postmodernist era. In this manner, Amin’s practice also comes to squarely defy the skeptical nihilism of postmodernism, which declares the death not only of representation, painting, the author and art itself but also of god, reason and all truth. Of his more recent works, Char Bagh II: Falling Leaves seems to stand at the forefront of the charge against postmodernism. Historically, the Persian style of garden, the ChaharBagh (Charbagh), is a four-garden layout centrally intersected by axial pathways and stands as a powerful metaphor for man’s need to organize and impose order/control onto nature. In the Mughal tradition, this layout is also seen as symbolic of the Garden of Eden, the exploration of which one saw clearly in a later collaborative, dance-based performance work titled Where’s The Apple Joshindar, telling the stories of five individuals, including Amin himself.
Char Bagh II – Falling Leaves
This movement between the private and the public, the contained isolation of the studio and the outward reaching nature of collaboration and performance, is characteristic of Amin’s approach towards his practice, perhaps from the very beginning. This proclivity for reaching outward, for an inclusiveness and generosity of spirit, whether in dealings with people or in the approach to his own practice, has also led to Amin being one of few artists who have successfully navigated between the art and fashion worlds, acting almost as a bridge between the two.
In September 2000, arising out of the ‘Egg Series’, a 30 minute fashion and performance show titled ‘Alchemy’ was hosted at the Sheraton Hotel, exploring ideas of conception, birth and creation, viewing pregnancy almost as a magical, alchemical practice. The year after, ‘Sola Singhar’ followed much the same pattern of operating as a site where performance and fashion converge. Amin speaks of this as a time in Pakistan’s art and fashion history that was much more fluid, a time when the boundaries between disciplines were less defined and the taking of risks much easier, perhaps subject to a lesser critique and scrutiny, allowing for freer collaborations across the board and the possibility of new and exciting modes of practice. During these years, Amin’s jewelry pieces, crafted of pure copper and pated with 24 carat gold, often including the use of precious or semi precious stones, each one of a kind, became internationally known and appreciated, his clients including the iconic designer Carolina Herrera as well as Mrs. Boutros BoutrosGhali, to name a few.
To Amin, these were simply an extension of his practice, a new mode of exploration within a larger framework, acting almost as preliminary works to larger sculptural pieces: “I do not sketch out my sculptures before making them. I work out my ideas through jewelry.” In so doing, and in the fact of his success in this, Amin (perhaps unknowingly) subverts the grounding principles of both fashion and art, and evokes Baudrillard in his commentary on fashion: “Potlatch, religion, indeed the ritual enchantment of expression, like that of costume and animal dances: everything is good for exalting fashion against the economic, like a transgression into a play-act sociality: […] We would like to see a functional squandering everywhere so as to bring about symbolic destruction” (Baudrillard, 1976)
Where the connectionwith fashion is often overlooked in the context of Amin Gulgee’s involvement in performance art in recent years, an organic line of growth can be traced back to these shows in the early 2000s, its links visible in later performance works such as Love Marriage, part of the exhibition ‘Band Baja Baraat’ hosted by IVS Gallery in 2012, which saw Amin and fellow sculptor Saba Iqbal, their faces an identical Kabuki white, wearing a copper helmet and a body armor/bustier studded with nails respectively, silently breaking eggs into each other’s hands, while audience members posed and took photographs with them as would be regular practice at a wedding. Where Amin’s own performative work has often addressed issues of gender and identity, his engagement with the practice of performance has been at a much larger level. Earlier in 2013, Amin curated and hosted ‘Riwhyti: One Night Stand’ at the Amin Gulgee Gallery, where 30 Karachi based artists simultaneously performed individual works over the two-hour period of the show.
Most recently, I was able to view and establish this link for myself as I worked with Amin as a co-curator for the large-scale installation and performance exhibition ‘DREAMSCAPE’ (December 2014). Arising partly out of our mutual interest in the conceptual framework of Lewis Carroll’s story and taking inspiration from a quote by Yoko Ono (“A dream you dream alone is only a dream.A dream you dream together is reality.”), DREAMSCAPE indiscriminatingly brought together almost 50 visual, performance and theater artists, fashion designers and musicians in a museum sized exhibition of installation and performance art. Fostered through regular individual and group meetings with the core group of about 35 Karachi-based artists over a seven-month period, with the curatorial agenda finding its basis in enacting a kind of ‘collective dream’, artists were encouraged to form visible connections and collaborations alongside the production of individual works created specifically for this show. More than a dozen artists from out of station were also invited to send a ‘dreamscape object’ that represented their individual interpretation of our collective reverie.
Where Amin and I were often viewed as unlikely collaborators, we found our (sometimes contradictory) energies to work in perfect sync, finding our grounding in our unequivocally inclusive stance as practitioners within the field of art – an expansionist view that did not discriminate between the creative potential of individuals. With a natural propensity towards finding and forming connections – in a manner familiar to archivists and writers – I found myself tying together aspects of Amin Gulgee the individual and Amin Gulgee the artist whose practice had engaged me intellectually for many years. I found both to be the same, inextricably bound, organic and somehow perfectly logical – in the way that Alice’s ‘unreal’ world is logical and undeniably real within its realm. I was also reminded of a line by Alexander McQueen, a distinctive fashion equivalent that does not seem inappropriate, who similarly broke through boundaries and set fire to restrictive margins within his practice, and who said: “That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules but keep the tradition.” (AMQ, 2012)
His inspirations range from Pakistans spiritual history to Hindu mythology and Buddhist civilisation.
My objects demand to be made,and until they are,they haunt me, says Pakistani artist Amin Gulgee. Son of eminent Pakistani artist Ismail Gulgee,the sculptor is returning to Delhi with a solo exhibition after six years. The solo,which will take place at the Nitanjali Art Gallery,is titled Through the Looking Glass and will comprise the Karachi-based artists latest set of works. It features some of my most ambitious works, notes the 48- year-old,about the collection where he works with materials most familiar to him – bronze and copper.
Among his recurring themes,which also appear in this set of work,is his fascination for the face,his own and his parents. So Me in the Matrix has 89 expressions of the artist cast in bronze and reassembled. Ive chopped,diced,rearranged my self-portrait. Its therapeutic, he says. If Perforated Wall II,Rosetta Stone bronze panel on a black mount is influenced by the ancient Egyptian Rosetta stone,the series Cosmic Chapatti depicts his love for geometry and patterns. He replicates the Mughal four garden design or Char Bagh in copper,steel,mirror and sand in the installation Char-Bagh II: Falling Leaves. The Mughals created their own style of architecture in their gardens by combining the geometric Persian influence with the organic traditions of South Asia. This combination of the geometric with the organic is fascinating for me in the context of the garden. Its also something both India and Pakistan have, says the artist,whose parents were found dead in their home in 2007.
Putting behind the current tensions between the two nations,Gulgee hopes for an encouraging response from the Indian audience. It was a tremendous experience last time. Im hoping for it to be as good or even better, he notes.
The exhibition will be on display at Galerie Romain Rolland,Alliance Francaise de Delhi,72,Lodhi Estate,from September 17 to 20. It moves to Nitanjali Gallery,C-66,Anand Niketan,from September 21 to 30
Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: September 9, 2013 5:59:47 am
There was wonder, excitement and expectancy among the people who crowded into the Amin Gulgee Gallery recently in Karachi. They were there to see the artist’s latest exhibition, a collection of bronze sculptures titled ‘Through the Looking Glass’. Distributing warm greetings and hugs all around, the artist, nothing if not a showman, was in his element while holding what appeared to be 50 conversations all at once.
“I do not make my work; it makes itself”
Son of the late Ismail and Zarina Gulgee, the former a world-renowned artist, Amin has presented more than 30 solo exhibitions in Pakistan as well as various corners of the globe. He’s taken part in group shows in Venice, London, Beijing, Mumbai, New York, New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur. He is also known as a curator of exhibitions and for his stage shows, which include ‘Mohenjodaro’ in London, ‘Love Marriage’ in Karachi’s Indus Valley School, and most recently ‘Riwhyti One Night Stand’ at the Amin Gulgee Gallery.
He takes his inspiration from Pakistan’s spiritual history, from Hindu mythology, Buddhist civilization and Islamic calligraphy. Of his work in general he says, “I do not make my work; it makes itself. It demands to be brought into the world to occupy space. In my process, some threads are old and insist on reinventing themselves. Others appear new and fresh and these combine to create a tapestry that is woven and tells my story. It is a very old yet contemporary narrative, which borrows, celebrates and questions tradition and history.”
An old thread that’s visible in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is the artist’s fascination with portrayals of the face, his own and his parents’ in particular. These works began as a series of what he calls, paradoxically, “inner masks” that reveal the state of the soul. In the very early images, the faces are wrapped and bound; the ones made later seem to have been eaten away by inner turmoil. The skillfully balanced ‘Me in the Matrix’ continues this theme – the matrix being the place in which a thing is developed, or the mold in which something is cast or shaped. Says Amin: “This is composed of 89 of my faces, cast in bronze, chopped and re-assembled. It is how I feel now.” And indeed, looking at it closely one can see isolated facial features within the mass – lips of various shapes, the suggestion of a brow, different noses… So does this piece embody a renewal of the search for identity, for the ideal self, for a more exalted soul within?
Amin is one of the first artists to bring Islamic calligraphy into the three-dimensional world of sculpture
‘Ripping Apart the Bird’s Nest’ is a similarly thought-provoking work, and on his own admission represents Amin’s inner turmoil, or suffering, if you prefer. “It’s me,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot.” Here we see hands, hungry, tearing hands, grasping hands in Buddhist terminology, the tangled, mangled nest, eminently tangible textures and subtle hues. The piece is self-framed, and like most others in this collection it’s much larger than Amin’s usual sculptures. It even bears a resemblance to his tangled ‘Egg 1’ piece from 2001. (Incidentally, he explains that eggs, which he sees as symbols of female power, and nests are of more interest to him than birds themselves.)
“Hands were very much a part of my early work,” says Amin. “For me at that time they symbolized man’s capacity both to build and to destroy. Also, I am fascinated by the German word “bigrafen,” which means learning through touch. I work with my hands, as I love making objects, and because my material is copper and bronze, I love my work to be touched.”
“I love my work to be touched”
|Char Bagh II|
Amin Gulgee is one of the first artists to bring Islamic calligraphy into the three-dimensional world of sculpture. Such pieces include ‘Rosetta Stone’ and ‘Love Letter’, the former taking its inspiration from the original Rosetta Stone, that ancient Egyptian grandiorite stele inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of Ptolemy V. Eventually it was moved to the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta, where it was rediscovered in 1799, and from thence it traveled to the British Museum. It was inscribed in three languages, which helped decode the hitherto untranslatable Egyptian script.
Amin’s ‘Rosetta Stone’ is wonderfully textured, large and magnificent on its simple black mount. (Viewers in the gallery kept gazing at it thoughtfully.) It presents a calligraphic inscription sliced through the richly colored bronze panel like a huge and elegant stencil, with light creating eye-catching effects as it filters through the perforations and cuts. This one is not actually inscribed with different scripts like the Egyptian original. One wonders what extra message the artist seeks to give through it, apart from the meaning of the calligraphy it bears.
[box9]Amin was reticent about the inspiration for the title of ‘Through the Looking Glass’, though he did admit to having read Lewis Carroll’s book of the same name.
On a different note entirely was the large installation entitled ‘Char-Bagh II: Falling Leaves’. Asked if he felt himself to be close to nature, the artist was vague, but the answer to this came in his thoughts on gardens, including the char bagh of the Mughals, who “created their own style of architecture in their gardens by combining the geometric Persian influence with the organic traditions of South Asia. This combination of the geometric with the organic is fascinating for me in the context of the garden. The English word “garden” comes from the old English word “geard”, meaning enclosure. Thus, gardens were about the cultivation of the earth by humankind, who imposed their order upon nature. It was man’s attempt to enclose and organise organic forces. The char bagh for me becomes a symbol of this need to divide geometrically and impose one’s own order upon the seemingly random forces of nature. It is the balance between man and nature. It becomes a field to nurture and feed the body and the soul.”
There is a spiritual principle of reflection. It states that natural and visual phenomena are reflections of each other, and that all existence functions as a mirror for Being, where Spirit explores and understands itself from the reflections it makes in the pool of matter. We can say that Amin Gulgee’s latest works appear to be metaphysical reflections of himself, and of his attempt to understand not only what is around him, but also what is inside.
Source: The Friday Times
- 1988 to 2000
- Amin Gulgee
- Amin Gulgee Gallery
- Group Show
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- Print Media
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- Al-Nahda Royal Society
- Arabian Gallery
- Art Gallery
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- Continuity – Kinetic Essence
- Cosmic Mambo
- IMF Show – The Search for light
- Indus Gallery
- Intercontinental Hotel
- Lahore Art Gallery
- Lawrence Gallery
- Looking for the Magic Center
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- Open Studio II
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- Rida Gallery
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- The Spider Speaketh in Tongues
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