The monograph The Art of Iqbal Geoffrey, edited by Zoha Haider, not only adds to the corpus of books on Pakistani art and artists, but also provides a comprehensive view of an artist who has been celebrated for his innovative, intelligent and imaginative aspects creations. Published by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, the book includes reproductions of his drawings and collages from 1941 to 2008.
Contributions from some of the most respected names of art world, like Sir Herbert Read and Prof. Norbert Lynton, makes this volume an important document, because these writers (even if through one line – as in the case of Read) expressed their faith in the art of Geoffrey when he was a young man in UK. Amongst these authors, perhaps the text of Suellen Weinstein Liker offers the most in-depth study and analysis of his art, along with mentioning important points and achievements in the artist’s life. For instance, Geoffrey’s education in law at the Harvard Law School and his subsequent doctoral experience: “He stunned Harvard University officialdom in 1967 by submitting a PhD thesis on art history which consisted of nothing but black pages. Professor Richard R. Baxter (later a Justice of the International Court of Justice) termed it as the most outstanding, post-conceptual thesis every created in the entire history of Harvard University”.
Other contributors such as Quddus Mirza provide a contextual reading of the artist, who because to his unique approach has a remarkable aura. In his essay “Homeless at Home” Mirza discusses the artist’s conscious act or choice of acquiring or rather transforming his surname from the conventional local Jafree to the English Geoffrey. “By adapting a name that not only suggests him as an individual, but signifies the fabric of our present day society which is a blend of Eastern as well as Western elements, Geoffrey’s transliteration of his surname – a twist on regular family name pronounced ‘Jafree’ represents his complete personality – Iqbal from the East and Geoffrey of the West.”
Mirza extends this observation to connect it with the way Iqbal Geoffrey constructs his images, because in his works one can see the amalgamation of aesthetics elements from across cultures and continents. It is the way he combines these diverse and contradictory visuals and materials, that everything converges into a single, pure and strong aesthetic entity. Mirza elaborates: “This particular aesthetics is about change. Like life itself, the art of Geoffrey is subject to perpetual transformation.”
In this sense, ‘perpetual transformation’ is visible in the collages printed in the book. The largest part of the publication consists of these works, which though they appear similar at one level, offer something distinct. Photographs of Indian film actresses, commercial advertisements, pictures of art works from past, clippings of newspapers, postal envelopes, postage stamps, rulers and coins create a world, which like the real world is full of contradictions, but exists in an interesting harmony.
That harmony is managed in the art of Iqbal Geoffrey with his incredible level of intelligence and unusual sense of humour. Humour in art is not unlike humour in ordinary existence, because as art is a way of discovering some extraordinary dimension of the usual, humour is a means to find a new way of seeing and saying something about the same old order. In this manner, the art reproduced in the monograph certifies and affirms that the artist visualizes and constructs a parallel world, which along with its uncanny qualities, has a deeper meaning or message to convey.
Thus whether it is the figure of a girl in tights with an English Queen’s face perched on a wall, or Picasso’s painting combined with body of a Bollywood heroine, the works embody and convey a different way of approaching the world. This is enhanced by his titles, with his customary sense of humour, such as Naiza Khan Thinking in the Defence Society, Star Signs: Sragodha Edition, A Second-Hand Bride in Radical Heat Versus Rituals, ‘M’ for Maybe and so forth.
Perhaps the most important part of these collages is the signature of the artist. Scrawled in a flowing hand the word ‘Geoffrey’ not only denotes the name of the maker, but in many cases completes the pictorial composition, a sign that the personality of the maker can not be detached from the rendering and reading of an art work. As in the book, a detailed account of his life and published material help to understand the ideas and aesthetics of an individual who was born in 1939, and was part of prestigious art exhibitions and art collections around the world, including the Tate. The book is a means of reminding his compatriots that despite the saying “nobody is a prophet at home”, Iqbal Geoffrey is equally recognized in his home country, abroad and in many imaginary homelands.
The Art of Iqbal Geoffrey, edited by Zoha Haider. Published by The National Art Gallery, Islamabad, 2008. 308 pages. ISBN: 9786964500607.
Aamna Hussain is a Lahore-based independent curator and art writer.