A couple of days ago I received a book in the post titled The art of Iqbal Geoffrey, a handsome volume published by Pakistan's National Art Gallery.
At least the book claims to be a publication of Pakistan's National Art Gallery. Why do I doubt the identity of the publisher? You would, too, if you knew Iqbal Geoffrey, aka Barrister Syedna Mohamed Jawaid Iqbal Jafree of Lyallpur in Pakistan, Slarpore in India and Brighton in the UK; chairman of Geoffrey and Khitran, Barristers and Solicitors, Pakistan's oldest and largest law firm; graduate in law and art history from Harvard University; Laureate of the 1965 Paris Biennial; and Arts Counsel of Great Britain appointed by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
I first came across the artist's name while I was consulting editor at Art India magazine. The listings at the back of the magazine's April 2003 issue contained an entry for his show of MicroMinimalist SupraSculptures at London's National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, curated by Professor Norbert Lynton and Sir Nicholas Serota no less. I began a correspondence with him, playing along with his self-image of being 'the greatest artist ever'.
A little less than two years later, there was a large show of Pakistani art in Bombay's NGMA, curated by Quddus Mirza. I was happy to hear that Geoffrey's work was included, and that he himself would be in Bombay for the opening. Despite the many references he had made to his achievements in the 1960s, I didn't expect him to be the kindly old gentleman he turned out to be. I'd placed him in the category of young, hip artists who adopt personae, creating a whole history and identity for themselves online.
Disconcertingly, he kept the mask up at all times, to such a degree that I began to wonder if he actually believed everything he said about himself. We'd be discussing practical matters like exchanging dollars for rupees when he'd slip in a reference to how Sir Herbert Read had pronounced him "an astonishing phenomenon". To complicate matters further, there actually is a record in the Smithsonian libraries database of a monograph titled Iqbal Geoffrey: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours 1949-1963, and Herbert Read is listed as one of the contributors. In 1949, it's worth remembering, Geoffrey was just ten years old. The Tate Modern has in its collection a canvas by the artist painted in 1958, when he was 19 years old, and donated in 1962. The handling of paint and the colour scheme is reminiscent of the work Akbar Padamsee was doing around that time.
Iqbal Geoffrey's works displayed at the NGMA were disappointingly run-of-the-mill: a series of collages made primarily from glossy advertisements. The images in the book I've just received are devoted entirely to collages and mixed-media works in that style. They are recent creations, which would have been of some interest, had the artist not hyped them and himself so much. Even as I have grown very fond of Iqbalji personally, my interest in his art has waned after viewing the NGMA selection.
So, what's the truth behind Iqbal Geoffrey's life and career? Perhaps he made a name for himself at a very early age. Maybe, in the manner of Souza, he was briefly the toast of the London art fraternity before sliding into obscurity. It is possible he has, in his mind, extended that brief period in the limelight to a career of glittering, multifarious achievements. I can only speculate. What is certain is that his persona is far more interesting than the physical works by him that I have seen.
In conclusion, I quote a line from the preface to the book, The art of Iqbal Geoffrey, by its editor Zoha Haider, or Shahzadi Zoha Noor-Fatima Alla'dittii AnnuRadha Haider to provide her full name: "To beneficially (and usefully) explore this Monograph one must magnanimously study it dilgently in-between-the-lines with goodwill afterthought (but do not think of the pink elephant!) and without taking the line for a ride. Neither marrow, nor narrow the line."