“Horses” by Gulgee: An Exceptional Gift to His Highness the Aga Khan for His Landmark 80th Birthday

Ismail Gulgee


Ismail Gulgee (1926 – 2007)

Editor/publisher, http://www.simergphotos.com

Ismail Gulgee was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1926. Since his childhood, Gulgee’s heart was in the visual arts. He dabbled in paint, inspired by his artistic grandfather. However, he chose to follow his father’s advice to acquire a formal education. The brilliant student paved his path to Harvard University, where he earned a Masters of Science degree in Soil Mechanics, with top honours. After some time, he started to pursue his deep passion as an artist.

Volumes can be written and spoken about Ismail Gulgee as an artist. The world renowned Ismaili artist first came into prominence as a gifted portraitist. In 1957, for example, Afghanistan’s King Zahir commissioned Gulgee to paint his portrait, subsequently inviting him to complete 151 portraits of the Royal Family. Over the next several decades, Gulgee would paint Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and George HW Bush of the USA; President Charles de Gaulle of France; King Faisal of Saudi Arabia; King Hussein of Jordan; and Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran. Sadly, this warm, caring, down-to-earth and charming man lost his life on December 16, 2007, at the age of 81.

December 16, 2016: A Unique Celebration for Mawlana Hazar Imam, With a Special Touch from Gulgee


His Highness the Aga Khan is looking very happy as he listens to Mr. Mahmoud Eboo, the Chairman of the Ismaili Leaders International Forum, introducing Gulgee’s lapis lazuli mosaic of “Horses” which was presented to him for his 80th birthday. The celebration was held on Friday, December 16, 2016 at Aiglemont, France. Photo: The Ismaili (extracted from the official video).

On December 16, 2016, on exactly the 9th anniversary of Gulgee’s death, his memory came to full light when his extraordinary mosaic entitled “Horses” was gifted to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, for his 80th birthday.

Gulgee was a self-taught artist who worked in a vast spectrum of materials including charcoal, ink, crayon, bronze and oil paints as well as precious and semi-precious stones. The “Horses” that was commissioned in 1988 was precisely constructed using lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that has been mined in the Badakhshan province in Central Asia and Afghanistan for several centuries. The stone ranges in colour from white through blue-green and deep-blue to black. The finest lapis has an intense blue colour, and is found in the Kokcha river valley of Badakhshan.

gulgee-lapis-lazuli-horses-presentation-to-aga-khan-photo-twoGulgee’s “Horses” is gifted to His Highness the Aga Khan by Ismaili leaders Mahmoud Eboo (right) and Shafik Sachedina (left) on behalf of the entire Ismaili leadership and the world wide Ismaili community on the celebration of his milestone 80th birthday. Photo: The Ismaili (extracted by Simerg from official video).

“Horses” is particularly startling because of its size – 120 x 108 cm. (47.2 x 42.5 in.). The reason for this specific gift to Mawlana Hazar Imam was highlighted by Mahmoud Eboo just before the mosaic was unveiled by him and Shafik Sachedina. He noted that  it was selected “because of Hazar Imam’s passion for horses, the history of horses within Islamic civilisation and the history even within Mawlana Hazar Imam’s own family.”

horses-by-gulgee-lapis-lazulli-precious-stoneA close up image of Gulgee’s magnificent mosaic “Horses” created in lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that is found in parts of Central Asia. This photo appeared in the March 1988 issue of Canadian Ismaili magazine that had many feature articles on art including one on Gulgee by Noor Alibhai. This work  of “Horses” that was gifted to His Highness the Aga Khan by the worldwide Ismaili community for his 80th birthday was most probably commissioned in 1988, and is approximately 120 x 108 cm. (47.2 x 42.5 in.) in size.

Besides “Horses”, Gulgee produced mosaics representing important personalities and heads of state. Among these portrait studies in mosaic is that of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III. This was done in lapis and precious gems, including emeralds, rubies and jade. In 1976, Gulgee was commissioned to do lapis mosaics for Mawlana Hazar Imam for his family members — father Prince Aly Khan (1911-1960), uncle Prince Sadruddin (1933-2003), and younger brother Prince Amyn Muhammad. Mawlana Hazar Imam also visited Gulgee’s art studio at his home in Karachi, and commissioned additional lapis’ portraits for his  family. In a special article on Gulgee appearing in the December 1982 issue of the Ontario Ismaili Newsletter it was mentioned that some of the mosaic works were on display at the time at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, UK.

Another outstanding and popular lapis mosaic created by the artist is that of Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Ismaili Centre in London. It is on a wall along the main staircase leading to the jamatkhana ( prayer hall).


Gulgee produced outstanding mosaic portraits of the current 49th Ismaili Imam (left) and his late grandfather, the 48th Imam (1877–1957). The lapis portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam is displayed prominently on a wall along the main stairwell of the Ismaili Centre in London leading up to the jamatkhana (prayer hall).  At right, the 48th Imam’s mosaic, was done in 1992 using lapis and other precious gems including emeralds, rubies and jade.

Carving in Lapis Lazuli


Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in its natural. Image: Wikepedia

The intricacies and challenges of carving the lapiz lazuli portraits that Gulgee did are summarized by Crimson East, a blogger on the internet:

“I’ve said before that I know little of visual art. But I found his [Gulgee’s] work on lapis lazuli portraits to be nothing short of phenomenal. Take, for instance, the portrait of the Aga Khan (spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims – the sect to which Gulgee belonged).

“He made many portraits of this kind. The medium used in these mosaics is blue lapis lazuli stones. Basically, Gulgee had to pick through thousands of pieces of blue stone, in varying colors and shapes and sizes. Then, he had to arrange them in such a way that they formed a perfect portrait of a living person. He described it as being similar to a giant jigsaw puzzle. I cannot imagine a more fascinating artistic medium.”

In a short essay titled “The World According to Gulgee” that the late Oleg Grabar contributed to the book titled “Gulgee” that was published in 2000, Grabar writes:

“Gulgee’s passion is his art and…his passion for making works of art shines through his formal portraits of world celebrities and almost overwhelms the subjects. As I shall argue later, one of the major ways for the exercise of this passion lies, throughout Gulgee’s work, in the tension between his topics and the techniques or media he utilizes. It is, perhaps, because of this particular tension that Gulgee has so often represented, in mosaics of lapis lazuli, horses at liberty, for horses, like works of art and perhaps like artists, are spectacular to watch in the expression of their freedom and, yet, can also be harnessed for pleasure or for work.” (p. 11).

Later in the same essay, Grabar continues:

“The third and last tension in Gulgee’s work lies in the challenging originality of some of the techniques he uses. Much of his work consists in paintings done according to the usual ways of his time: large canvasses covered with powerful brush strokes and occasionally toying with the relief given to paint. But he has also been attracted by two additional techniques. One, already mentioned, is that of presenting personages or horses in mosaics of lapis lazuli, whose various shades are explored in order to provide the light and shade needed for the naturalism required by the subjects. The technique is a difficult one and it requires considerable assistance in the preparation of the small cubes and in their division into various colours and shades. It is also a technique which requires an extraordinary eye to relate minute little cubes to an image of the finished product. It is, finally, a technique which, like most techniques using rare and expensive materials, gold for instance, leaves the viewer wondering whether the hardness and rarity of the material is not what primarily attracts the eye. Gulgee has succeeded in walking a very tricky tight rope and to avoid the danger of glitter by subduing his subjects in the tonalities of his medium. The effects are, to my mind, quite extraordinary.” (p. 15)

Date posted: December 23, 2016.
Last updated: December 23, 2016 (14:05 PST).


This piece has been compiled and adapted from numerous sources, including the following:

  1. http://www.theismaili.org, the official website of the Ismaili Muslim community.
  2. The World According to Gulgee by Oleg Grabar, published in Gulgee, 2000.
  3. http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/57/IsmailGulgee19262007
  4. http://tribune.com.pk/story/393702/gulgee-painting-auction-sets-record-at-bonham/
  5. Gulgee by Noor Alibhai in Canadian Ismaili, March 1988, p. 19.
  6. Gulgee: Who is He? published in the Ontario Ismaili Newsletter, December 1982, p. 8.

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