Islamabad: Accomplished Pakistani medallion portrait artist Khalil Najmi has completed one of his finest works — wood-carved portraits of the leaders of the United Arab Emirates — which he says is a “gift from Pakistan to UAE” on the 51st National Day.
The detailed portraits have been “carved on the wood that comes from the Deodar tree which has a special significance being the national tree of Pakistan”, the Karachi-based self-taught artist told Gulf News in an interview.
Najmi hopes that he will soon have the honour to personally present to the UAE leader the set of portraits that have been hand-carved to perfection with deep admiration for the UAE. He has carved pictures of the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as well as the late UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who passed away in May, and the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Currently he is working on portraits of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Promoting brotherhood through art
What inspired him to work on the unique portraits of the leaders of the Gulf state? “The social welfare system of UAE and the sincerity and commitment of the country’s leadership toward its citizens inspired me to learn more about UAE during my visit to Dubai.”
His interest in the Gulf country has grown significantly over the years to the extent that Najmi decided to incorporate it into his intricate form of art to strengthen the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.
“Through my artwork of the heads of state and leaders, I am portraying the less-known and less-celebrated history, art, and culture of the Muslim countries to the rest of the world as art is the most effective means of communication,” said the 60-year-old artist.
Portraits in royal palaces
Najmi’s first hand-carved art piece to be put in a royal palace was the portrait of King of Bahrain Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa. “My portrait of Bahrain’s King was acquired and presented to the Bahraini leader by Pakistan’s former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa early this year,” he said.
The artist has also produced medallion portraits of the leaders of Saudi Arabia including King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as well as the first king and founder of Saudi Arabia King Abdul Aziz Al Saud. This portrait set was presented to the Saudi crown prince.
His work includes portraits of Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. His most recent work is the portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hundreds of Najmi’s portraits adorn offices of prominent organisations throughout Pakistan and more than 600 medals and 100 portraits were acquired by art lovers in the United States.
How the artist creates medallion art?
Medallion art is in a round or oval frame containing an embossed image typically portraits on any material including wood, marble, terracotta, or bronze.
One of the techniques that Najmi specializes in is called bas-relief (pronounced bah-relief) which adds a sense of perspective and gives depth to the art piece. The artist creates and accentuates figures and objects, producing a three-dimensional appearance.
“It is quite tricky to achieve the level of slight thickness” that allows the production of coins and medals from the carved portraits, said Najmi.
The ideas are first sketched and then carved on the material. Najmi mostly works with wood. The portrait size is usually A4 but it is designed specially so that it can be reduced to the smaller size intended for a coin or medal. Detailing the three forms of his artwork, Naimi said that the “first form of presentation is a hand-carved portrait on wood .The second is a medallion pattern in metal finish and the third is value-added work of art which is a hand-painted portrait.” These three complete the set of his artwork presented to dignitaries.
Najmi says he was blessed with an artistic flair that he began exploring as soon as he could pick up a pencil as a child. In his school days, he used to engrave images on chalks and erasers and later experimented with calligraphy. At the age of 14, his work gained prominence after his artwork series of footprints of pushcart vendors.
In 1991, he decided to bid farewell to his artistic career to survive financially after getting married. He ran a successful advertising company during this time but decided to return to his art career after a 20-year hiatus. “I thought it was time to do what I was born to do,” he says.
In the last decade, Khalil Najmi has made his mark as one of the finest Pakistani medallion portrait artists. He has also carved a realistic portrait of the founder of Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The artist wishes that his globally-acclaimed work is given due recognition in Pakistan and that the government considers his portraits of M. A. Jinnah, Allama Iqbal and Fatima Jinnah to appear on circulatory coins of Pakistan.