Amin Gulgee has long be known in the art world for his quirky and ubiquitous art events, which have always sought to bridge gaps and fill vacuums that are present in Karachi’s art scene. He was born in 1967 in Karachi, Pakistan and went to the US for his higher education in 1987. With a degree from Yale in Art History and economics from Yale Amin’s first interest in art was established through jewellery. He has had an intensive jewellery making practice that has been worn by celebrities and icons as well as ordinary people. While his jewellery remained one of the most successful and sought after functional objects, his sculptures are no less. He describes their translations into sculpture as somewhat expected as these were almost like maquette models for what was to come later as a practice immersed in the making of larger sculptural objects. This transition took place in 2007 when the artist devoted himself entirely to metal sculpture that incorporated glass, wire, nuts, bolts, and other found objects.
Recalling his memories from the time spent in the West, Gulgee became interested in the history of Islamic art and discovered the immense research and investigations western scholars have undertaken. Western interpretation of artistic traditions from the Muslim world, particularly within the South Asian context led him to more vigorous speculation towards the void of critical and intellectual response to Islamic art, specifically calligraphy, in Pakistan. Taking ownership of the calligraphic art form and probing its formal characteristics the artist ventured into three-dimensional renditions of the text, reclaiming the poetics of the art form through sculpture. Establishing a relationship with Syrian bowls, vessels and ornaments Amin Gulgee’s sculptures express a desire to appropriate a tradition and an art form that was already his own and explicitly familiar. For him this was an appropriation of his childhood. He fondly remembers his father, one of the highly esteemed painting maestros of Pakistan, Ismail Gulgee, whose calligraphies are iconic reversions of the customary practice. Amin’s work too forsakes the traditional as he rewrites Islamic art history at a time when its documentation in our own region and context was limited.
Between 1996 and 2000 Amin’s interest in emerging contemporary artists in Pakistan began to foster and thrive as he embarked on the journey of presenting new and alternative histories of the art scene through engaging with the young generation of artists. He took on a more curatorial role and organised an exhibition called Urban Voices showcasing fresh graduates from major art schools in Pakistan. At a time when hotels like Sheraton (now Movenpick Hotel) were semi-public spaces and as hang out spots for the youth, Amin created a platform for the several artists keen on having their voices being heard and “seen” by a larger audience. Carving new narratives through his curatorial ventures Amin along with his contemporaries established an artists’ collective, Vasl, which was to reinvigorate the art scene in Karachi, with the city as the loci of artistic developments. Furthering on the curiosity with the city and its urbanity, Amin curated an object based show called Dish Dhamaka in 2002, featuring around 30 artists dealing with the idea of globalisation through articulating their responses to the satellite culture.
In recent years Amin Gulgee has annually curated several art exhibitions at his personal gallery surveying a variety of themes and practices. From the proliferation of performance art in Pakistan as a viable medium, to exploration of memory in The 70s Show: Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade as well as Dreamscape, Amin has set in motion an unstoppable culture of experiencing art in Pakistan.
His most ambitious endeavour is the first ever Karachi Biennale 2017. The much-anticipated event is due in October and Amin, as the chief curator has embarked on a challenge that will shape and profess the trajectories art from Pakistan, particularly, Karachi will take. Steering the complex and fascinating ship of artists participating in the event, in an interesting direction Amin has chosen the thematic of Witness for them to respond to. “Giving them a point of departure”, the chief curator has opened up a world of ideas which are could possibly yield exciting and unpredictable outcomes. Staying true to his curatorial ethos he has kept the call open to everyone with participations from hundreds of local and international artists. One might surmise that like his previous attempts responses and processes of artists will plea a variety of reactions and emotions from his audience.
Amin has formed a dynamic team of experts and young individuals to work alongside with him on this mighty project. His core team consists of Zarmeene Shah, curator at large, who holds master’s in critical and curatorial studies from the University of Columbia in New York and is currently heading the liberal arts programme at IVS, as well as artist and designer, Sara Pagganwala, Humayun Memon and Zeerak Ahmed as his assistant curators along with Adam Fahi-majeed as curatorial team member. Together they contribute to the making of one of the most exciting contemporary art events in Karachi’s history with 12 locations and sites that represent the turbulent and alive aspect of the city.
The several exhibitions that Amin hopes to put up at these locations are not thematically divided but will serve as a self-contained microcosm of visual sensibilities that work as a whole. This decision is admirable as does not seclude or isolate a location in the city according to its demographic but encompasses all and everything as one, akin to Karachi’s interwoven actuality. The prime venue for the Biennale is the beautiful NJV School Building located in one of the busiest arteries of Karachi, M. A. Jinnah Road. Other locations in the downtown area include, Pioneer Books, Capri Cinema, Jamshed Memorial Hall (Theosophical Society), 63 Commisariat, Claremont House and Frere Hall along with FOMMA Trust, IVS Gallery, Alliance Frances, Karachi School of Art and the Rangoonwala Hall in other parts of the city.
In the biennale Amin has also three international guest curators, Paolo DeGrandes from Venice, SPARCK and Carlos in a bid to bring in art from Italy, Africa and South America. The biennale has also organised non-official residencies for artists from South Asian and diaspora which will be hosted at Sanat Initiative and Vasl Artists’ Collective. With untiring lobbying and personal coercion Amin has managed to gather so many local and international artists, to whom he expresses immense gratitude, which make the upcoming event appear to be rich and ripe with flavour. While he has legitimate concerns over funding that his project lacks, the chief of biennale has managed to turn that hindrance into the project’s strength through capturing this one moment in time that brings in both energy and innocence.
With so much pain and loss that the city has suffered, the biennale it seems will not shy away from presenting that same energy and response, immersed in that emotive experience. One can almost foresee this major art event engaging, entertaining, mesmerising, and mystifying Karachi’s hungry audiences that are ready to witness.
Syed Ammad Tahir
Scholar at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture