Raqib Shaw’s dazzling debut solo exhibition at London’s White Cube gallery was so pretty it hurt. “Absence of God” comprised the London-based artist’s signature paintings made from enamel, semi-precious stones and industrial paint on linen, their iconography trapped between fairytale and nightmare, as well as Shaw’s first foray into sculpture.
This piece, a life-size fiberglass sculpture entitled Adam (2008), is a representation of a creature with Shaw’s muscular body topped by the head of a bird engaged in an erotic, bloody battle with a giant blue lobster. Placed in a darkened room, the intertwined beings could have been fornicating or fighting, a coupling of activities to be found in many modes of mysticism throughout the ages. Further playing off this attraction-repulsion motif are the bulbous toads that swim in the slime contained in the bird-man’s open beak. Since this viscous effect was created with glittering crystals, the closer one moves toward Adam, the more fascinating he becomes. The coupling of love and death in Adam, referencing the German romantic idea of Liebestod, literally “love death,” sets the tone for the rest of the show, where beauty was never benign. In Absence of God IV . . . The Blind Butterfly Catcher (2008), a small black figure with jewel-encrusted wings casts a torn butterfly net at iridescent insects. The fluttering butterflies might have dodged his trap but are not safe from other predators lurking about, including vicious monkeys wielding embroidered parasols and a squirrel holding a sharp black stick.
Born in Kolkata but raised in Kashmir, where his Muslim mercantile family traded in Persian rugs, jewelry and textiles, the opulent antiques of Shaw’s childhood find their way into his art, as does his multi-ethnic education. Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim state, but Shaw went to a Christian school where he was taught by Hindu tutors. He moved to London to study art in 1998. The rich surfaces of his paintings echo the intricacy of Mughal miniatures, like the lapis lazuli blue of Absence of God VI, on which scenes of violent battles between screaming anthropomorphous beings (many with indigo limbs, recalling Krishna) have been delicately edged in gilt.
Belying its title, a strong sense of the sacred pervaded this display. In the chaotic milieu of the images, however, it is unclear whether religion is being mocked as irrelevant or condemned for its exertion of sinister power. Are we to mourn God’s absence or revel in it? Shaw deliberately compounds our confusion about his attitude towards belief by drawing upon the macabre imagery of the 15th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, whom Shaw referenced in his ornate series of paintings “Garden of Earthly Delights” (2003), named after Bosch’s engrossing triptych and presented in his 2004 show at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery. This time, the monsters that populate Shaw’s Absence of God VII (2008)—a horse with a dragon’s head, Krishna with the torso of a vulture, bloody babies and screeching monkeys—are almost as devilish as the malformed creatures in Bosch’s Hell (1490).
Despite being virtually ignored in India—he has had neither an Indian solo nor is he represented by a specific gallery there—Shaw has been flying high since he graduated from the Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London, in 2002. The maquette for Adam was displayed at the Tate Britain in 2006, and he was given an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2008. Between these career-making pillars lies the issue with Shaw’s art.
Certainly, Shaw fits snugly into the categories of postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha who, unsurprisingly, wrote the catalog for the show. Shaw’s multi-ethnic leanings are lauded for their “hybridity.” Meanwhile, the lush flora of his paintings serve as a nostalgic reminder that war-ravaged Kashmir was once India’s “paradise on earth,” even as Shaw’s bejeweled, blood-spattered monsters re-enforce its fall from grace. All this makes for poignant passages in Bhabha’s text about Shaw’s quest for a “lost homeland.” With his exquisite references to Hindu myths and Persian miniatures, Shaw pleases both the latent Orientalist and politically correct academic. Is Shaw too adept at catering to what viewers expect from a Kashmiri living in London?
Doubts aside, his glittering art tempts us to put aside our misgivings at least temporarily: Shaw compensates with technical prowess for whatever he lacks in intellectual originality.