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Fathoming Raqib Shaw’s artistic realm that recreates myth and fantasy
Known for his gloriously opulent painted images, internationally acclaimed artist Raqib Shaw creates a fantastical realm, enriched with jewel-like surfaces, bright colors, and intricate detailing. The elements deceptively mask the violent and sexual undertone.

His practice is based on a deep understanding of the rich history of poetic-visual culture of both East and West, having drawn on a rich seam of influences from India, Japan, and China. Known to be an excellent draughtsman, he can effortlessly produce thousands of drawings of flowers, and creatures - both real and imaginary - that make their way into the vibrant paintings. They are then meticulously infused with enamel-like paint, later to be covered with countless tiny emeralds, rubies etc. Intense shades of captivating colors achieve a high degree of precision with his expert touch.

The multi-faceted artist is known to employ mix media, such as car enamels and industrial paints coupled with decorative materials comprising glitter and precious gemstones for densely patterned and elaborately layered surfaces that combine an Eastern and Western perspective. A wealth of dense imagery fills his paintings and sculptures: fantastical creatures and devil-like gods, decayed ornamental architecture, and exquisitely painted flowers and grasses. They conjure up both a beautiful and horrific universe. Raqib Shaw unveils a chain of cultural contradictions, essentially based on the twin factors of self-knowledge and dream psychology.

Born in Kolkata, the talented artist belongs to a family of carpet makers and shawl traders from Kashmir. The strife-torn scenic landscape and his ancestry have greatly shaped the richly layered exquisite paintings by him. His passion for art took him to London, where he studied at Central St Martins School of Art. A series of international shows brought him to limelight. For example, his spectacular and visionary paintings displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and a solo show at the Tate Britain enhanced his reputation as a world-class artist. When he arrived in London, the first Western painter he encountered was Hans Holbein, who incidentally inspired this body of work.

His earlier series ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ also received immense critical acclaim. The erotically charged works courtesy Victoria Miro were inspired by Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century triptych. The artist depicted a dizzying scenario of erotic hedonism, both gruesome and explosive in its debauchery. It was a fantastical underwater world full of mythical creatures populated with hybrid creatures and fusing a wide array of fabulously painted flora and fauna. He created an eerie eco-system with figures like phallus-headed birds, reptilian warriors or bug-eyed butterfly catchers, apparently anthropomorphic in their gesture and regalia. The works from this series commanded astounding attention and prices internationally. A painting from it fetched Rs 19 crore at a 2007 Sotheby’s auction in London. Other small size works subsequently went for Rs 1.27 crore (Sotheby’s, February 08) and Rs 4 crore (February 2010, Christie’s).

His another significant show, entitled ‘Absence of God’, at White Cube, London (2009) focused on the peculiar ‘presence of absence’ felt by many intellectuals, often leading to a fear of the void. The concept spurred the restless artist to fill that void and create a fantastical imagery. Putting his ideas in perspective, reviewer Norman Rosenthal of the UK Telegraph noted in an essay, “When he first came to London, the artist was overwhelmed by some of the paintings in the National Gallery by artists like Botticelli and Bronzino. Holbein and Piranesi also became points of reference. Everything from the former's ‘Dance of Death’ to his English court portraits, and Piranesi's depictions of the imperial Rome ruins. The extraordinary era of Moghal India, with its extravagant, bejeweled empire, which resulted in a wonderful flowering of Indian painting, also found an echo in his art.”

Raqib Shaw’s awe-inspiring oeuvre recreates myth and fantasy with devils and angels, horror and beauty infused in equal measure. The extraordinary work captivates the viewer’s eye with its intricate detail and rich colors. A fantasy world, which simmers with erotic tension and violence, lies beneath their glittering surfaces. Apparently inspired by a wide range of sources, the artist unveils explosive collisions of mesmerizing fact and fiction, nature and culture. The startling aesthetics unveils itself only on closer examination to bring out sexual bizarreness and violence. At a latent level, it touches upon the vices of mindless consumption and profligacy as well as intemperance that that afflicts mankind.