In this two part article, art historian and curator Sharmistha Ray recounts the story of Raqib Shaw, an Indian-born gay artist who is on the fast track to becoming an international star.
The reclusive London-based Raqib Shaw first came into the public eye October 2007 when one of his paintings, a monumental triptych called Garden of Earthly Delights III sold for an incredible US$5.49 million at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale, making it the most expensive artwork by an Indian artist sold in an auction. It turned the then 33 year-old into an overnight sensation, catapulting him to the highest echelons of the international art world.
Before his record breaking sale in 2007, Shaw was relatively unknown outside of London. His meteoric climb has had few parallels even by London standards. Superstar artists like Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney, both of whom exploded onto the contemporary scene and became overnight sensations in the early nineties in London and New York respectively, commercial success followed artistic achievement. For Shaw however, they’ve gone hand in hand. Shaw’s résumé includes solo exhibitions at Tate Britain in London and Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami (both in 2006) as well as inclusions in Passion for Paint exhibition at the National Gallery in London (2005), Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2006) and Around the World in Eighty Days at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (2006). Shaw’spaintings have also found patronage in such notable public and private collections as Tate Britain, MOMA, Rubell Family Collection in Miami and Dakis Joannous Collection in Athens, among others. All of which makes him the only second artist of Indian origin, apart from sculptor Anish Kapoor, who has gained fame and name with a predominantly western audience.
Raqib Shaw’s visual language culls from a broad range of influences that reflect the artist’s Eastern and Western sensibilities. The record-breaking painting Garden of Earthly Delights III for example, is largely indebted to traditional European painting that is combined together with techniques and practices whose roots can be traced to India and Japan. However, the dramatic narratives and fantastic scenarios that unfold on canvas are of Shaw’s making entirely and come out from of an imagination obsessed with sexual pleasure and its implications. The large format, visually lush painting reveals a dramatic, violent and erogenous world in which strange, hybrid creatures engage in intense, erotic play in a submerged aqueous netherworld. The leading protagonist at the center of the narrative is a Pelican King with a necklace of jewels and a crown perched on its head that emerges out of a florid sea urchin, brandishing its scepter like a grand conductor of an orchestra. Dramatic crescendo gives life to the underwater world and thousands of characters swirl to life.
A menacing piranha-like creature with anthropomorphic elements holds up a phallus ejaculating on the palm of his hand almost as an offering to the protagonist. Shoals of fish of every color and size join the choreography along with sharks with gaping mouths, an array of squid, turtles, stingrays and jellyfish. Multicolored coral, a plethora of sea flora and fauna create a fantastical setting which explodes the senses. Amid the chaos, a silent and still stag in full regalia with a golden halo stares at us. Hybrid creatures of a reptilian or monkey variety copulate and intertwine amorously with crustaceans of every kind, octopuses and other weird sea animals.
It’s a delicious farce that takes its inspiration as well as its title from a visionary triptych by the early Netherlandish master Hieronymous Bosch. His 15th century triptych depicts several biblical and heretical scenes to illustrate the history of mankind according to medieval Christian doctrine. The left panel of this painting depicts God presenting to Adam the newly created Eve, while the central panel is a broad panorama of sexually engaged nude figures, fantastical animals, oversized fruit and hybrid stone formations. The right panel renders a hellscape that portrays the torments of damnation. Art historians and critics interpret the painting as a didactic warning of the perils of temptation.
In light of this interpretation, Shaw’s work reveals itself further: sexual freedom on Earth has its cost in the afterlife. Seen in the context of Shaw’s homosexuality, these paintings take on new and layered meanings. In the Genesis, Adam submitted himself to the forbidden fruit offered to him by Satan that appeared in the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Shaw’s paintings reveal similar temptations, and the curses of pleasure; the phallus offered up is akin to the forbidden fruit, and Shaw casts himself in the image of Adam, innocent but poisoned. Although Shaw’s paintings are aesthetic delights, the moral underpinnings serve to remind us that with pleasure, comes pain, guilt, suffering, and malaise. The preoccupation with universal themes rescues Shaw’s paintings from being merely decorative and elevates them to the mantle of history painting.
Raqib Shaw first encountered Western art at the age of sixteen at the National Gallery on a trip to London. He came upon such masterpieces as Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) that made a profound impression on him. The double portrait painting by Holbein is accompanied by a still life of meticulously rendered objects. The meaning of these objects, what they signify and their symbolic imprint has been the cause of heated academic debate. Paintings made during the medieval and Renaissance eras were replete in moral implications. The rich attention to detail, the use of signifiers to unfold narrative and the proliferation of symbols to confound meaning are devices common to both Holbein and Shaw and they use it to unlock complex questions about morality and social norms. It is interesting to note that that Holbein lived in an age when there was little distinction between the decorative and fine arts.
Among other skills, he was an acclaimed designer of goldsmiths’ work, jewellery and tapestry. It’s certain that Shaw’s exposure to Medieval and Renaissance art fortified his visual thinking, helped him to develop a conceptual framework for painting and deepened his relationship to the history of art. These initial imprints were to form the core of his exploration into subject matter, material and style even later on at Central Saint Martins. In portraits completed in 2006, Shaw has paid homage to Holbein’s iconic portraits of Henry VIII and wives Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves and morphed them into part-animals, playfully embellishing upon their features with his own signature style. Although centuries have passed between the time of Holbein and Shaw, the focus for Shaw is on symbolism, and his appropriation of the Old Master is in reverence of the eternal language of symbols and what they communicate. Decadence, extravagance, moral decrepitude lie at the heart of Shaw’s concerns as they did for his artistic predecessors.
Shaw maintains a detached relationship with the country of his origin. In fact he speaks very little about his background. He was born in Kolkata into a family that dealt in carpets, shawls and jewellery. But when six months old his family moved back to Kashmir where he grew up. Winters however were spent in Kolkata. Shaw apparently was often left to his own devices there. Not having many friends or television for entertainment, he spent much of his time on his own. In the long, drawn out hours, he lost himself in endless daydreams and found some solace in reading English classics.
The receding colonial dream still had its strains in Kashmir, and the young Shaw found relational similarities between the attitudes and modes in Kashmir and those scripted in his favorite novels like Wuthering Heights. At the age of 8, Shaw started to paint after school. It appears that even in his pre-adolescent years, painting provided a means for Shaw to channelize his fantasies and create alternate universes. Raqib Shaw’s ambivalence about his past is no doubt tied to his relationship (or lack thereof) with his family. It is likely that his homosexuality played a part, as did perhaps his choice to pursue art as a career against his family’s wishes. According to sources that know Shaw, he now maintains few personal ties to India. His constant references to India allude instead to the rich diversity of aesthetic experiences and philosophies that have informed his art making. He cites the influence of Persian miniatures, carpets, shawls, jewellery, Buddhism, Kama Sutra and Sufi music as being as important as those gleaned from the European tradition of painting.
In 1998, Shaw moved to London and worked for a brief time for the family business out of a retail store in Mayfair. However, he soon discovered that selling carpets and shawls wasn’t his preferred vocation. Upon quitting the business (a move that apparently forced him to sell out his shares back to his family), he moved to a humble studio apartment in London and entered Central Saint Martins to study fine art. Shaw graduated in 2001 and followed on with an MA in Fine Art from the same college in 2002. Although he describes this time as the happiest in his life, he came into a hostile environment at Saint Martins. Shaw was a misfit. According to Shaw, his peers liked to view him as a kind of ‘noble savage’ who had to be taught about contemporary art. His penchant for the traditional canons of Medieval and Renaissance painting didn’t help matters either.
Part 2 on Raqib Shaw and his rise to fame, next week.
*Editors Note : An original version of this article was published in Man’s World February 2009.