Gulgee draws on the tradition of Islamic calligraphy, using Koranic inscriptions not just to decorate his work but as an intrinsic part of it. Gulgee makes calligraphy into sculpture. His work deliberately mixes traditions: He draws on Hindu mythology and Buddhist sculptures as much as he does the Islamic tradition. A table-size copper circle, with interlocking Arabic script spelling "Allah"--or God--squints at infinity. The word "Allah" is alluded to in "Reflection II," a piece built of copper and rock crystals.
If there's a theme to his work, it's mixing the sacred. "I create sculpture in which I am physically able to combine elements that traditionally do not belong together," he wrote in a summary of his work. At a time where Hindu and Muslim radicals in his region are anxious to parse out what they claim are the pure fundamentals of their faiths, Gulgee pays homage to how they have been braided together.
His shows--32 of them on four continents--show his international appeal: at the U.N. in New York, The Galleria in Houston, at The Soni Gallery in London, in Arabia and Pakistan and Hong Kong. Last summer, at The Soni Gallery show in London, throngs of British Asians were at the opening--many of them elegant women buying his chunky crystal-and-metal creations for necks, lobes, and wrists.
The slim, shoulder-haired Gulgee moved among them in the tiny two-roomed gallery, energy radiating. His jewelry, whose themes are less overtly spiritual, was featured in the New York-based designer Mary McFadden's 1996 collection.
Gulgee is one of the few Muslim artists working in what's traditionally been seen as a Western art form. The Islamic art tradition has little experience of three-dimensional art: Sculptures of humans are not allowed. Artistic energy has been poured into calligraphy, metalwork, and architecture, rather than sculpture. Freedom from a tradition, Gulgee says, has been a boon rather than a hindrance. "There are no dangers. Culture is fusion. The danger is when it stops--when a culture closes its doors."
Born in Pakistan, Gulgee's interest in objects began as a toddler. His parents collected Buddhist, Islamic, and Hindu artifacts, and he recalls the excitement of having "these fantastic objects" miraculously appear in their Karachi home--bowls with metal-work calligraphy, chairs from Damascus. "My parents never brought me toys," he explains. "These were my toys. My playground was my parents' living room."
Those early years gave him courage to feel playful with precious objects--and with religion itself. "A Krishna or a sculpture from the Buddhist sites of Gandara--it wasn't something you were reverent of," he says. "You just played with it."
In the '80s, he went off to Yale, where he studied economics and Western art history--in part, he says, because of the South Asian obsession with the Renaissance and Western history of art as the only true trajectory of art. "Art begins and ends with the West, every thing that gives us a validation is from the West," he says. "The greatest praise is--'Oh my god, this looks like a Brancusi!'"
He deliberately broadened his art history studies to include the East, winning a university award for a thesis on Moghul Gardens when he graduated in 1987. Gulgee returned to Pakistan after graduation, where he began working with the craftsmen who cast his sculptures for him. "They can't understand why a sahib is getting himself all dirty," he says. "But they are my finest critics."