Pakistani artist Iqbal Geoffrey is much more than a witty collage-maker: his world is, artistically and socially, a cosmopolitan one.
IQBAL GEOFFREY is both a singular artist and a singular character. His work over the past 50 years has been marked by complete integrity and an artistic vision that is uniquely his own. There is no other artist like him in the subcontinent or, for that matter, anywhere else.
His critics may dismiss him as a witty and clever collage-maker but he is, to be sure, much more than that. He is not a hedgehog like the American Abstractionists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joseph Albers, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. Of course, the collage is his mainstay, and that makes him as acerbic a social critic as Honore Daumier and Constantine Guy were in 19th century France. Unlike the above-mentioned Abstractionists, who did one thing very well, Geoffrey can be quite versatile when he wants to. This is probably because he has never ceased to draw human figure or landscape or, for that matter, objects, which usually form a part of his collages, though not always. He can, therefore, do many things proficiently.
Geoffrey is also a barrister-at-law and an honours graduate of the Harvard Law School. He is a dedicated advocate of vox populi or the voice of the people. His championing of the freedom of speech and expression as a lawyer has also influenced his work in a decisive way. A master of the play of words, his collages, though full of play, invariably have an underlying seriousness that cannot be ignored.
I met him in Delhi more than 20 years ago. When Geoffrey talked in his infectious, informal manner about post-conceptual art, its importance in the history of 20th century Western art, it did not sink in immediately; neither did the connection between his art and his training as a lawyer who had always challenged the status quo. Then, as now, he led a double life as an artist and as a public-interest lawyer. Sensing my reservation about manipulating existing art works to yield new meanings, he explained the nature of his own work thus: Like putting a nipple in Monalisa's mouth. Only when I saw his work did its enduring merit make itself apparent to me.
Zoha Haider, editor of the book The Art of Iqbal Geoffrey, says: Sir Herbert Reid [British art historian] has described him as an astonishing phenomenon' and in 1964 dedicated a lecture at Wesleyan University in Connecticut to Iqbal Geoffrey who has entered into an exclusive destiny'. Like his famous predecessors from the French avant-garde in the early 20th century, Marcel Duschamp (who, incidentally, became an admirer of Geoffrey's art in his old age) and Man Ray (Jewish American artist), Geoffrey did not stop at doing mischievous things to startle the bourgeoisie, such as burning American currency notes (which did not amuse the Americans). Geoffrey's irascibility did not exactly endear him to the art establishment in the West with its notions of a carefully shepherded modernity.
His mastery over words puts him in the Joycean tradition a dangerous precept for a visual artist for whom English is at best a second language. Geoffrey, with his well-cut suits and courtly manners, was a disturbing entity for many arbiters of occidental art; they found it impossible to reconcile his ideas with his demeanour. Though they thought he was a troublemaker, they could not touch him because of his financial independence. Of course, some widely respected scholars and connoisseurs of art have stood by him all these years. For them he is a loyal friend and his visual and verbal pranks are tokens of affection.
Art inspired by 20th-century Western aesthetics must be appreciated for the right reasons that is, due attention must be paid to the artist's mind as well as to his/her spirit and the ability to express an idea with visual panache.
Duschamp's Nude Descending a Staircase is a visual tour de force, but the aesthetic idea behind its execution may or may not be as adventurous as it seems. It could possibly be seen as an attempt to do what individual frames on a strip of cine film do, but with one difference that is, when a film strip is run through the projector at a given speed, one gets an illusion of motion. So then, what was Duschamp trying to say? The mystery of his painting lies in this not knowing. A similar interpretation may be given to a found object, a polished white public urinal, in his art. What would one say about Man Ray's display of an Underwood typewriter with its black cover tantalisingly up?
Of course, one could indulge in aesthetic prudery' and say that both Duschamp and Ray were attention-seeking dabblers. But there is one stumbling block their impeccable technical credentials. Both knew how to draw the human figure well, and also the intricacies of perspective drawing, among other things.
Geoffrey is similarly accomplished. There are many drawings, including a self-portrait, to substantiate the claim. He is an artist of the real world who has to make surreal connections with it in his pursuit of what he considers to be the artistic truth, or what he might like to call an unending procession of truths, each different from the other, expressed through the medium of art.
The trouble with what emerged as art in the last 100 years is that it is subjective certainly much more subjective than the art preceding the French Impressionists of the 1870s. To digress from Geoffrey for a moment, it was that remarkable draughtsman Amedeo Modigliani who first drew critics' flak in the 20th century for drawing ugly heads. But history has judged differently: few others have rendered the human face with all its complexities, which constitute its soul, better than Modigliani. Pablo Picasso, who could draw like a Renaissance Master and turn his hand to anything during his Cubist phase, was accused of perpetrating ugliness. Henri De Toulouse Lautrec, the father of modern Western drawing, was shunned by his aristocrat father not because he remained a dwarf after breaking his legs in childhood but for what he considered in his gifted son to be a penchant for sordidness. Lautrec became a chronicler of the Parisian night life which was not meant for prudes.
Geoffrey's locus standi in art can be questioned by fuddy-duddies because of his passionate devotion to the collage as a valid form of artistic expression. They forget that Picasso and his contemporary Georges Braque did some of their most expressive work through the medium of collage. In the hands of a master, a collage can conjure up whole worlds and Geoffrey has been doing just that for the past 50 years or more.
The world that he inhabits artistically and socially is a cosmopolitan one. He is a citizen of the world though he is formally a citizen of Pakistan, a country whose destiny both intrigues and deeply affects him. While recognising art's healing potential for the wounds inflicted on the human psyche by physical violence, among other things, Geoffrey also realises that the undertaking of such a project is an idealistic one. His cosmopolitanism does not preclude his own cultural heritage, which has its roots in undivided Punjab, the land into which the Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab, Beas and Jhelum rivers flowed. These five also, over time, came to symbolise the diverse cultural influences of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths that gave birth to a creative, nourishing composite culture. The strong Sufi influence in this culture is best understood in the poetry of Shah Husain, Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah.
In our times, the compassionate message of the Sufis finds its most dynamic expression in the collages of Geoffrey; this may sound paradoxical, for he juxtaposes unlikely visual elements from the real world to arrive at the essence or abstraction. The Sufis recommend just that the arrival at the essence of all experience! This Darya Mein Fana Ho Jana, or merging with every droplet of water in the universe, is something that Geoffrey has internalised. But the process for this arrival, in the main, has been fun.
Geoffrey is au fait with all the technical requirements of Western classical painting and Eastern miniature painting, but he prefers to express his innermost desires through juxtaposition. He plays within the same collage with various civilisational and artistic influences, often stretching over centuries. The meaning or meanings such exercises yield are not necessarily intellectual or scientific. They are fugitive and can become apparent to the viewer only if he/she is tuned to the sensory experience. Geoffrey's collages are, more often than not, a tease.
He has, on occasion, collaborated with his illustrious colleague from Pakistan, Sadequain. He has used Sadequain's flowing line drawing of a particularly beautiful lady and then played it off against various elements in the collage, invariably arriving at a playful, even celebratory, conclusion that encourages a new beginning. Geoffrey did a series of collages featuring pen-and-ink drawings by his friend. He is a collaborator par excellence, meaning that he has as much respect for the artist he is collaborating with in a given endeavour as he has for himself. This comes from a supreme self-confidence that comes from self-awareness rather than vanity.
He is adept at making connections not only in art but also in real life. Although he was born into a wealthy family, Geoffrey's gregariousness cuts across the borders of class. The only class he recognises is one of merit. He is capable of having a sturdy friendship with a Delicatessen operator as he is with an artist or an intellectual provided the person is capable of forgetting the self in order to understand the hidden wonders of life.
Geoffrey is a man of the world; he is regarded as an exceptional barrister. That he is a champion of lost causes is proof of his innate romanticism. Although he has seen continuous turmoil, both at home and abroad, he has managed to retain his equipoise. That is an enviable achievement.