A Review of Raqib Shaw at the Whitworth, Manchester
What better place for Arteviste’s first regional review than the northern emblem of The Whitworth in Manchester. A city steeped with the vibrancy of subculture and a gallery that has gained international recognition through its curatorial team who aim for the personal, the playful and the intimate in all that they produce. The Whitworth’s recent solo exhibition by Raqib Shaw certainly encapsulates these three traits.
Co-curated by Tate Director, Dr Maria Balshaw, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Director of Dhaka Art Summit and the artist, Shaw’s solo exhibition is part of the New North and South Network. The three-year programme consists of co-commissions, exhibitions and intellectual exchange across a network of eleven arts organisations from the North of England and South Asia and aims to bring prominence to the work of leading Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and UK artists.
The collaboration is timely as 2017 marks the 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistan Independence. Cue an influx of South Asian themed activity that ranges from the disingenuous or, as mobilised with the finest execution here, a celebration of a fantastical fusion of ideas. Shaw’s solo exhibition creates real and imagined spaces between East and West and Shaw “connects to these narratives as a disobedient, post-colonial subject and plays back ‘the oriental’ to both West and East for a different political, sexual and emotional purpose.”
Stepping into the central space of The Whitworth, you cannot help but be intoxicated by the opulence of Raqib Shaw’s artwork. The exhibition walls are adorned with the motif of the exhibition After A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a wallpaper inspired by Shakespeare’s blissful, hedonistic play. Full of fruits, fairy like creatures, gnarled faces entwined in wooden branches and vibrantly feathered tropical birds, the wallpaper is intricate in detail and encloses the exhibition space, pressing the viewer to explore the tangled narratives held within the objects and artworks.
Calcutta born and St Martins bred; Shaw’s character is dissected and displayed throughout the space as he presents his own works alongside hand picked items from the Whitworth’s own collections. The pieces include oriental prints from Japan, sumptuous textiles such as a brocaded gold and pink Kashmir shawl, a rich still life in oil by Dutch painter Jan van Os and a block print by William Morris, the decorative symbol of wealthy England. The combination of objects lends itself to a domestic setting and outlines the complicated narratives of Shaw’s heritage and his totemic artworks, which at first glance are so elaborate they become labyrinthine.
Momentous in height and ecclesiastical in character, it is hard to advert the eye from a Raqib Shaw artwork as they glint at you under light. The reflection is created by a unique technique Shaw uses in which he pools enamel and metallic industrial paints, manipulating them to the desired effect with a porcupine quill. Meticulous work, the effect enhances numerous details within the paintings. Each motif is then outlined in embossed gold, a technique similar to the ancient ‘cloisonné’ method that can be found in early Asian pottery.
Kashmir Danaë (2016-2017) is the epitome of all these influences. The piece depicts Shaw in one of his many guises sat with his two dogs. Dastgir Shaib Shrine burns around them and flames fall from the ceiling of the marbled temple in which they sit. Shaw is an embodiment of blue, contrasting with the flames, and dressed in a luxurious kimono that drapes over the words ‘VANITAS VANITATIM’ inscribed on the temples façade. “This translates to ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ – a reference to the worthless nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. I suppose my paintings are, in a sense, reflections of the human condition,” Shaw explains.
Though elaborate, Shaw’s works maintain a genuine character such is the personal construction of mysticism and the romantic in which Shaw has enshrouded them. The objects displayed from the collection make the tumultuous fusions accessible, but so slightly dissolve the originality and mystique of Shaw’s artworks. The power of Shaw’s work lies in its magic and I can’t help but a imagine a future exhibition in which Shaw’s work is unhindered by its rationale. But, for now soak up the lavishness at the Whitworth and keep attuned to what will come next from this pioneering New North South Network collaboration of the North.
The exhibition will be reimagined for the South Asian context of the Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh.
Written by Emily Harris, a Contributor to Arteviste.