Raqib Shaw
In Search of a Lost Paradise

Incredibly beautiful and absolutely unique – Raqib Shaw’s works combine the brilliance of Renaissance paintings with the opulence of oriental and Far Eastern handicrafts. Two of his drawings are currently on view in the “The World on Paper” exhibition at the PalaisPopulaire. Achim Drucks immersed himself in Shaw’s fantastic cosmos.
Raqib Shaw has always been fascinated by underwater worlds. As a non-swimmer, he cannot explore them. But as an artist, he produces his own maritime universe. When he was studying at the renowned St. Martin's School of Art in London, he created an iridescent cosmos populated by creatures that is more fantastic than anything tropical coral reefs have to offer.The Garden of Earthly Delights is the title Shaw gave to this series, which he worked on from 2002 to 2005. It includes 15 paintings, some of them large-scale, as well as numerous works on paper. He found his motifs in old scientific representations from the Natural History Museum. He borrowed the title from Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych, in which the Dutch Old Master amalgamated a surreal paradise garden with disturbing scenes from hell. But Shaw’s series turns Bosch’s warning about the repercussions of a life of sin on its head: “It is celebration – there is absolutely no sign of death – it is total excitement and hedonism at its best,” says the artist.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is visual overkill. In psychedelic colors, radiant fire fish, jellyfish, crustaceans, and corals inhabit Shaw’s underwater landscape. They share their biotope with bizarre chimeras – men with ram’s heads or butterflies with colorful wings whose bodies are actually phalli. In this erotically charged underwater garden, everything is in a permanent state of metamorphosis; everything seems to fuse with everything else. This is the case in Shaw’s untitled drawing from the Deutsche Bank Collection, which was chosen as a key visual for The World on Paper, the opening exhibition of the PalaisPopulaire in Berlin. The artist put an antelope’s head on a man’s body consisting of faintly drawn black lines. As though in ecstasy, the figure stretches his arms upwards and grabs for a gigantic snail shell out of which a hermit crab peeps. An octopus is entwined around the man’s lower body. It remains open whether the octopus will pull him down into the depths of the ocean or whether the creature wants to unite with him.

Like all of the works of the Kashmir-born artist, this drawing has an incredible presence, and illustrations can hardly do justice to it. You have to experience these works firsthand, view them first from a distance and then close up. From a distance, it looks like Shaw enlarged Indian miniature paintings to a gigantic scale while applying Pollock’s all-over technique. The compositions in The Garden of Earthly Delights look ornamental; everything takes place on one visual plane and so the paintings resemble precious tapestries. When you move closer to them, however, it becomes apparent that each detail was worked out with the utmost precision. Perhaps no other contemporary painter has set off museum alarm systems as often as Shaw: In front of the artist’s paintings, you lean forward spontaneously to find out how they were made, to get close to what sparkles in front of you like jewels.

Indeed, Shaw’s working processing is more like that of a craftsman than that of a painter. He projects detailed preliminary drawings on primed wooden boards and then traces them. To this end, he uses with acrylic liner which leaves slightly raised golden lines that in the end edge countless tiny surfaces. This method recalls the age-old enameling technique Cloisonné, in which thin gold wires are used to demarcate different fields, which are then filled in with color. Shaw applies his paints with the help of injections from the most delicate needles. He prefers industrial glossy and metallic paints that are actually meant for cars. Using the sharp quill of a porcupine the paints are then amalgamated on the pictorial ground. The result are the marbled color surfaces, which are framed in gold like a jewel and are typical of Shaw’s work. In addition, he highlights special visual elements such as eyes or gems with glued-on rhinestones or semiprecious stones.

“I wanted to create a new kind of painting,” Shaw once said in an interview, “"I have always been obsessed with the idea of making industrial paints and decorative materials into something beyond decorative. I want the paintings to question people's notions of aesthetics. In looking at my work I want people to believe in the possibility of transcendence, that base metal might be turned into gold.” Like an alchemist, he transforms cheap, trivial materials into desirable treasures. The Garden of Earthly Delights was presented in 2004 at Victoria Miro, one of London’s most important galleries. It was Shaw’s first solo exhibition and was a tremendous success. All of the works were sold before the opening.

The show marked the beginning of an international career. Shaw was represented at the biennials in Sydney and Gwangju, and Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum devoted exhibitions to him. During his studies, the artist lived in an unheated factory hall, where he worked alone on The Garden of Earthly Delights. Today Shaw resides in a former sausage factory in the south of London. He transformed the dilapidated building into his own personal Shangri La, a private paradise lavishly decorated with flowers and Persian rugs and illuminated by candles. He shares the space with his dogs and one of the most extensive Bonsai collections in Europe, and rarely leaves the premises. And it is here that he creates his works. Although today he is supported my many assistants, he sometimes works on one of his large pieces for more than a year.

His cultivated British accent, his predilection for decadence and excess, make Shaw seem like a dandy from a fin-de-siècle novel. And his studio is a kind of shelter for him. “It is natural for me to seek ways to create a bubble, because I want to live in that space outside society and demography.” But of course, he cannot escape the miseries of the real world, a topic he deals with in his later works.

After The Garden of Earthly Delights, Shaw’s cosmos darkened. Although his impeccable surfaces still glisten seductively, in series like Absence Of God and Paradise Lost violence and death are omnipresent. Instead of amusing themselves with each other, the members of Shaw’s menagerie are now ready to tear each other apart. Eat and be eaten: This world is akin to one single bloody food chain. Nothing is safe; every idyll can immediately turn into the opposite. In these works, Shaw not only processes a severe case of cancer, but also traumatic memories of his youth in the Indian part of Kashmir. The artist, who was born in 1974, comes from a wealthy Moslem family that has traded in carpets, jewelry, and antiques for generations. Raqib attended a Christian school, where some of the teachers were Hindu. The harmonious coexistence of different religions typical of Kashmir at that time still largely shaped everyday life. “If there is a paradise on earth, then it is here, here, here!” the Persian poet Amir Khusrow once wrote, describing the Himalaya region with its diverse landscapes and cultures. But the conflicts between Moslems and Hindus increased. At the end of the 1980s, there were more and more attacks and assassinations. As a youth, Raqib witnessed a separatist being shot at a religious shrine. “Kashmir turned from an absolute paradise into an absolute nightmare and hell,” explains Shaw. “Fundamentalism destroyed Kashmir.”

In 1992, he and his family left their home country and moved to New Delhi. Then Shaw went to London to manage his family’s three stores in Mayfair. But an encounter with Holbein’s double portrait The Ambassadors (1533) at the National Gallery prompted him to turn his back on the business world – and his family – and become an artist. “What I really loved about The Ambassadors was that it was a painting about merchants. And I thought to myself, I don’t want to be the merchant, I want to be the guy who paints merchants.”  

In the end, merchants didn’t make it into Shaw’s visual world; but Old Masters such as Holbein, Cranach, and Botticelli had a decisive impact on his work. These Western influences mix with an aesthetic influenced by Japanese lacquer works and kimonos, by oriental rugs and Indian miniature painting. And repeatedly, there are references to his lost home. Thus, Kashmir Danae turns out to be a surreal remake of Jan Gossaert’s 1527 painting in which Zeus approaches the king’s daughter Danae in the form of a shower of gold and begets Perseus. In Shaw’s work, the erotic scene mutates into a memento mori. In the middle of the Kashmir countryside he put a Renaissance temple, in which he himself poses as Danae. Clad in a blue kimono and with his Jack Russell terrier Mr. C on his lap, he is enthroned on a red pillow and showered with gold. In the process, his face begins to dissolve and the flesh under his skin becomes visible.

Uniting beauty and terror, these paintings recall Wangechi Mutu’s collages. Shaw shares the Kenyan artist’s penchant for seductive surfaces and bizarre hybrid creatures. Both artists live in the diaspora, and both blend influences from their home countries with Western pictorial worlds, an approach that Shahzia Sikander also follows. “In this day and age, with the world shrinking, there are quite a lot of artists who blur the boundaries between cultures – a phenomenon that is going to become increasingly common,” says Shaw. “In such situations it is only natural for one to combine the aesthetics of East and West to create a hybrid sense of aesthetics.”

But in his case this aesthetics also challenge the tastes of many Western critics. Roberta Smith of The New York Times, for example, is no fan of Shaw’s visual opulence. “The surfeit of skill, bling, overheated color, tightly wound realism, historical recycling and murderous melodrama has the earmarks of kitsch,” she writes. But the artist counters such reproaches in a very calm, relaxed way: “It is very easy to classify something and put it in a box so you don’t have to think about it. It boils down to the fact that there are people who have different aesthetic experiences. I come from a very different culture. My work is an amalgamation, a hybrid, a cocktail. The fabulous thing about it is, the more you look, the more it will reward you. But you have to have the psychological state to accept what you see and engage with it.”

The World on Paper
PalaisPopulaire, Berlin
9/27/2018 –1/7/2019