Raqib Shaw is a Kashmiri artist who lives and works in London. He is known for his opulent and intricately detailed paintings of phantasmagorical dreamscapes made with surfaces inlaid with vibrantly colored jewels and enamel. His works reveal an eclectic combination of Western and Eastern influences, from Persian carpets and Northern Renaissance painting to industrial materials and Japanese lacquer. Shaw has had solo exhibitions at Tate Modern (2006) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2008). Shaw’s work has been featured in dozens of galleries around the globe.
RYAN STEADMAN: You began art school in London in the late ‘90s at a time when painting was out of favor, particularly narrative painting…
RAQIB SHAW: Absolutely. Painting was out. Video art and conceptual art was the thing to do. A painter was supposed to be a dinosaur! I really wanted to find my own voice, but being a painter is so different because what can you do as far as innovation in painting?
And that was a deadly serious question back then, wasn’t it? “Is painting dead?”
(Laughs) I remember (at art school) when the coolest kid on the block said to me “I want to speak to you. You don’t look like a stupid person, but I can’t believe you’re working on this painting day in and day out. Have you ever thought about how you could be doing something useful?” And this fellow’s degree piece was literally a hole in the wall. And he was on the other side of this hole in the wall, and he was deep-breathing behind it as if he was having sex! But my thoughts were that whatever I was doing might eventually lead me somewhere, since painting is such a very long and intense journey.
RYAN STEADMAN: Was it difficult working against the flow of cultural tastes back then?
RAQIB SHAW: It was an absolute nightmare! I was an anomaly because I came from Kashmir and everyone used to treat me like some kind of “noble savage,” you know, “Himalayan mountain man makes paintings,” and what not, but I actually got away with murder because of it. But you see, I had to make money from these paintings–I didn’t have a choice! I was squatting in Hackney Wick at the time, painting my thesis show which took me two-and-a-half years to make.
RYAN STEADMAN: Your mythic style is reminiscent of the work of polarizing western artists like Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia. Why do you think this kind of work can sometimes be difficult for the contemporary art scene to digest?
RAQIB SHAW: I really don’t look at any contemporary artists, and I really don’t believe in a “scene”. It’s not my cup of tea. I really don’t even consider myself a contemporary artist at all. I don’t even consider myself an artist, I just do these things (laughs.) There’s really nothing else better to do.
RYAN STEADMAN: Though you look back to ancient history in your symbolic narratives, you ironically have a very modern-day approach to materials. Synthetic elements such as glitter and rhinestones dot the surfaces of your paintings, bringing to mind contemporary artists such as Mickalene Thomas. Do you think this aesthetic is a symptom of the era in which you began making art?
RAQIB SHAW: I have no idea who that is (laughs). But I think what contemporary art allows you to do is break rules. There’s no Royal Academy like 400 years ago… and that’s something really fabulous that happened at St. Martin’s. You were inspired to go and look for materials and to try and do something new. During that time, you very much had to do something new. There was that pressure to up with something new. You couldn’t just do life drawings and nudes. Life drawings are important and nudes are still important, but you couldn’t just do a life drawing… they would assassinate you!
RYAN STEADMAN: John Berger said that “all stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known.” I feel as if your work couldn’t be closer to that truth, both in the literal battles we see depicted, and the “battles” between concepts such as East vs. West that are felt in these paintings…
RAQIB SHAW: How about: one’s life becomes one’s unctum! (laughs) But yes, these works do come from a certain way of living, and that’s what they are, ultimately. I am always interested in the consistent quality of everything to collapse in the
fascinating to see over the years if the work explodes or implodes in on itself. It is very much akin to walking on the edge of a Samurai sword.
RYAN STEADMAN: Your way of working is very labor intensive. What truths have you garnered from this almost Sisyphean approach to production?
RAQIB SHAW: The repetitive nature of the work and labor intensive quality is almost shamanistic in its approach; the repetitive beating of the drum that transports one to a psychological state where one rises above from the futile concerns of day-to-day existence and merges – becomes one with the Goddess of art. In this state of ecstasy action becomes a pilgrimage, and art becomes an object of worship and meditation.
RYAN STEADMAN: Your work blends the past and the present, but it also merges iconography from the East and West. Clearly this is due to your experiences living in both India and the UK, but do you feel as if your work is generally about blurring boundaries? The past and the present, the East and the West, the human and the animal?
RAQIB SHAW: 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. In such situations it is only natural one combines the aesthetics of East and West to create a hybrid sense of aesthetics. I feel it is a privilege for me to be able to give voice to the frozen political turmoil and turbulence of Kashmir, which has taken the heaviest toll on artists who have no means to pursue their art; hence their artistic voice remains unknown to the western world.
RYAN STEADMAN: Your current body of work is based on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. What is it about this timeless classic that has fueled you artistically? Is the lack of morality in the world something that you wrestle with?
RAQIB SHAW: The only similarity between the poem and the painting is the sheer scale of Milton’s work. It was a story that had to be written and I feel that the large Paradise lost painting is similar in its essence. Not only is it a story of my life, but a chronological journey from the cradle to the grave; the loss of innocence and ultimate demise and destruction.
The lack of morality in the world is something, I feel, we all wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. Hence, I shut myself away with my fabulous team and shut off from the outside world. The studio is a temple of art, isolated from society and it’s futile and shallow concerns.
Art is sacred, I surrender!