It’s been a while since I’ve seen compositions as dense as Raqib Shaw’s. Dancing skeletons, Hindu deities, Japanese pagodas, gold coins raining like confetti, peacocks on plinths, crown jewels on side tables… These paintings are packed with global cultural references but what unites them are common themes of decadence and death.
The volume and variety of cultural reference points is no doubt a reflection of Raqib’s personal history. Born in Calcutta, Raqib was raised in Kashmir. He moved to London in 1988, where he still lives and works. (Hence in one of the self-portraits on show of Raqib in his study, you can glimpse the Shard in the background.)
You could spend days listing the cultural references in each of Raqib’s paintings We’re told that, in part, Raqib reference works from the Old Masters which hang in the galleries at the Prado and the National Gallery. But the final results are utterly unique works that blend imagery and iconography from both East and West with ideas from theatre, science, religion and natural history.
These are scenes rich in details, where swarms of crows, bonsai trees and intricate bouquets of flowers are added, seemingly, as peripheral details. But the richness of the compositions matched in the materials. Glistening enamel (apparently applied in painstaking detail through the use of porcupine quills) and shimmering rhinestones catch the light only accentuating the luxury further.
But for all the sumptuous materials, these are brooding works that examine dark and intense emotions such as greed, sex and vanity.
It’s impossible to look past the army of skeletons that dominate almost every painting. Those few living faces to be seen in the artworks seem to be wracked with pain. Yet there is life in the undead. These skeletons grin out at you, they dance, some are down on their knees, others dressed as bishops and cardinals hoarding sacks of gold coins.
This intensity is also found in the three bronze sculptures included in the exhibition. In these, teams of centaurs are hurled together, their frenzy a swirl of violence and lust. Such energy caught in these pieces, and such detail.
Raqib’s works are not just intense in composition, but intense in emotion too. And his skill in execution and vision is unquestionably impressive.
White Cube Bermondsey, London to September 11, 2016
All photos by me.