One of Pakistan’s best-known painters, Ismail Gulgee, was found dead along with his wife and maid on the evening of December 19 in their Karachi home, victims of an apparent robbery. The news sent shockwaves through a volatile Pakistan, which had just emerged from a six-week-long state of emergency imposed by President Musharraf. On February 17 fter a two-month investigation, police arrested Gulgee’s driver and an accomplice on murder charges.
Born in Peshawar in 1926, the self-taught Gulgee began to paint while studying hydraulics in the US. He held his first exhibition in Stockholm in 1950, where he worked briefly as a design engineer, followed by his first exhibition in Pakistan three years later in Warsak, near Peshawar, where Gulgee was involved in a dam construction project on the Kabul River.
A gifted portraitist, Gulgee 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. 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, earning him the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet, “the court painter of Pakistan.”
Gulgee received his first extended exposure to abstract expressionism in 1960 through an exhibition in Karachi of American painter Elaine Hamilton. 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 subsequent decades, Gulgee embraced decoration, embellishing his canvases with gold and silver leaf, pieces of mirror and vibrant constellations of dots. In the late 1960s, he began experimenting with sculpture, securing numerous commissions for large-scale bronze works of Koranic verses and Islamic symbols, most notably those he executed in 1986 for Islamabad’s Shah Faisal mosque.
Though Gulgee had a high public profile across the Muslim world, with works in numerous private and state collections, he exhibited infrequently at home, citing a 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. Eager to ensure his artistic legacy, in 2000, Gulgee inaugurated the Gulgee Museum near his home in Karachi. He is survived by his son Amin, a prominent sculptor.