THE Search for Light exhibition presents an opportunity for Malaysians to view Islamic sculpture that is refreshingly contemporary and, yet, traditionally ethereal. The body of work on display comprises 11 sculptures illustrative of the various styles and themes that Pakistani artist Amin Gulgee has worked with over the past 15 years.
In the early 1990s, the Muslim artist explored other religions in his art, integrating the eloquent tranquillity of Buddhist postures and the mystic energy of Hindu gods into his crafts of metal and stone. Inspired by a desire to express the divine rather than a wish to preach a particular religion, the artist’s work holds appeal because of its material palpability and objective spirituality.
Originating from Karachi, Amin has exhibited in France, Turkey, Britain and the United States. A Bachelor of Arts graduate in Economics and Art History from Yale University, Amin was the recipient of the Cogar B. Goodyear Fine Arts Award. He has exhibited in over 40 group and solo exhibitions, and his work can be found in the permanent collections of the International Monetary Fund Headquarters in Washington DC, the Presidency in Islamabad, Aga Khan Foundation in New York and the Jordan National Gallery.
Islam is the central focus of The Search for Light, currently ongoing at the Townhouse Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. The tentativeness that usually handicaps the development of figurative painting and representative sculpture in Islamic art is not present here. The artist confidently reproduces life forms such as plant leaves, human hands and the metaphorical egg alongside the principal mode of Islamic artistic expression, calligraphy. Copper in warm sun-bathed tones and untreated transparent rock crystal manifest the purity of God’s gifts while the angular Kufic and flowing Nakshi script evince the academic and intellectual traditions of the Muslim world.
In Ocean, the emblematic circle of continuous life proclaims in sacred text, “which of the favours of God can one deny”. Cast in copper, the intricately woven ball of text evokes the mysteries of creation and the completion of a united whole. The purposeful use of the Eastern Kufic script with its planed horizontal and vertical lines further endows the sculpture with characteristics of stability, harmony and unity.
The manner in which the artist harnesses the malleable and light-responsive properties of metal and stone conveys the strength of the artworks. By alternately biting metal with acid and smoothening copper surfaces into a high gleam, different textures are created. Though metal and stone are usually seen as cold and impassive, light directed onto these sculptures made from these materials transfers a warm luminescent glow, transforming the material into the organic.
In Amber Acid, Amin recycles old glass bottles into a honeycomb structure of copper. Cinnabar green light, nickel tinted yellow and burnt sienna brown come together to build a rich kaleidoscope of varying sizes and shapes. The reuse of discarded materials and the different views afforded by the reflection in and refraction of light through each piece of coloured glass is symbolic of the constantly metamorphosing “looking glass” of life. There is continuous change, and roles in life are never permanent – an abandoned glass bottle becomes a work of art.
Many of the works, such as Square and Steps, show careful structural thought. All the works display an observation of harmony in design. Soldering is barely visible and carried out with technical dexterity. Source, in particular, is beautifully executed; it comprises acid treated plates of Kufic text soldered onto the metal surface. The sacred blessedness of birth and conception is further emphasised by the protective layering of the word “Allah” repeated in calligraphy over the entire surface.
Aside from glass and rock crystal, Amin integrates materials such as nuts, bolts, computer chips and metal tubing. By bringing together elements of modern technology with objects like glass and crystal that are reminiscent of ancient times, the artist attempts to relate the timeless qualities of art, beauty and spirituality. Admirable as these lofty intentions may be, there are occasional misses, however. Forgotten Text, which stands as a 12m-high sculpture in Pakistan, correlates the language of codes whether it is in the form of hieroglyphics or electronic data. Unfortunately, this sculpture, which brings to mind a unicyclist, does not possess the same engaging qualities as the other works on display. The use of a computer motherboard is somewhat clumsy and clichéd.
I found Amin’s works that incorporate calligraphy particularly captivating; they represent perfectly the relationships between text and form, the material and organic, and, on a higher level, the bond between God and mankind. The use of natural rock crystal speaks of light and recalls water, the agent of cleansing and purity. In Steps, the interlocking “Alhamdulillah”, speaks of the realisation of blessings, and the different paths upon which we all travel on the journey of life, roads that ultimately have the same beginnings and endings. The clean dignified lines of the square Kufic script, one of the earliest scripts used to record the Quran, are echoed in the form of the whole sculpture.
With his finesse at cajoling copper, glass and crystal into forming art, Amin has received worldwide recognition. The Search for Light is an important exhibition that shows us the ways in which art that is inspired by religion need not be dry or overwhelmingly forceful. Throughout, the artist fosters an affinity between physical and spiritual, and lends structure and reason to his aesthetic concepts. It is this depth of perception that makes Amin Gulgee’s sculptures so appealing to all.
n “The Search for Light” is on display at the Townhouse Gallery (No. 19A, Jalan Medang Tanduk, Bukit Bandaraya, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur) until Sept 9. Viewing is by appointment only; call 017-7887 7216 or 03-2094 3381.