Nepali Times Asian Paints
Life Times
The artist as an old man


"King Mahendra informed me that there were no galleries here," says Syyed Iqbal Geoffrey, recounting the royal response to his letter of 1962, in which he expressed a desire to visit Nepal. "But he said I could exhibit in the palace. Alas, I had other commitments at the time. I'm so glad to have finally made it here."

The monarchy is now defunct, and the palace itself may be a museum, but there's no shortage of galleries in Kathmandu these days. This week, Siddhartha Gallery is featuring an exhibition of 'supracollages' from the Indic artist Geoffrey, The Seven Henry Series: In Search of an Ideal Landscape.

Geoffrey made his mark early, snagging the Paris Biennale award in 1965 at the tender age of 25. But while he enjoyed the acclaim that followed, unprecedented for an artist of Asian origin (he was born in Chiniot, now in Pakistan), he was not content to wallow in bohemia. Fuelled by a highly developed sense of injustice, Geoffrey took up a degree in law, graduating with honours from Harvard. Both art and law dovetailed into his pursuit of the truth, and he made a living out of subverting everyday expectations (particularly of the elite).

Decades later, Geoffrey seems as combative as he ever was, as an artist and lawyer. In the 1990s, he earned some notoriety for defending Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani who was eventually executed for the murder of two CIA employees in the US. Then in 2005, he sued the Hayward Gallery in London for 65 million pounds for the loss and damage of 300 of his works (the gallery had offered him compensation of 65,000 pounds).

Geoffrey did not win either of these cases, but they do illuminate his approach towards the world. More, perhaps, than any background research on him does. What he represents as an artist is by no means clearer after a session of googling. In person, Geoffrey does little to dispel the idea that he is either an unrivalled genius or a supremely egotistical self-promoter, albeit a distinguished, personable one. He peppers the conversation with asides that I have no means of verifying, mirroring what he has proclaimed online: "I refused an invitation to be elevated to the Supreme Court of Pakistan"; "My work …was a watershed in twentieth-century art"; and so on.

He isn't particularly forthright about his own art, either, photographic reproductions of which sprawl on the table between us. I ask him to explain the thrust of his work, and the mechanics of one of his playfully thoughtful collages to illustrate this, but he suggests that to give me an explanation in words would negate the need for ideation through
his art.

Geoffrey does explain that he considers the process of creating his 'pain-things' more important than the endpoint. He is constantly at work, even on works he may have begun a quarter of a century ago, and carries his 'art ammunition' wherever he goes (he draws out a stick of glue and some pens from his jacket, smiling mischieviously).

He has plenty of advice for young artists struggling to make a mark in a society that too often undervalues art, or values the more commercial aspects of it. "I admire artists who don't bother too much about commercial acceptance," he declares, before adding in a softer tone: "But one may have to compromise to survive. I would tell young artists to evolve a strategy which is unique to their special circumstances, perhaps even using different identities, like Jekyll and Hyde …there is no harm in doing a bit of commercial work, if the artist can devote the major portion of his life to what he really believes in."

Certainly no such considerations appear to have stopped Syyed Iqbal Geoffrey from doing what he likes, making fun of the establishment the whole time. He takes pride in citing an art critic's appraisal of him as "not catering to the needs of society but rather creating them". But in the next breath, he ridicules the same critic: "I suggested that I would burn my works outside the Pasadena Art Museum in California, let the clouds of smoke move to the museum, and that would be my exhibition. He took it seriously – he wrote a whole article about it!"

With the passage of time, Geoffrey may have come to recognise the limits of what he can lay claim to. This does not dampen his spirit. "People call me a has-been," he concedes, before fixing me with an earnest gaze. "And I tell them: at least I have been a has-been!"

The Seven Henry Series: In Search of an Ideal Landscape, runs from 28 October to 17 November, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Babar Mahal Revisited, Gallery hours: 11am to 6pm, 12pm to 4pm on Saturdays, 4218048

A flight of freedom

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)