‘Paintings from the past, for me the Old Masters, are full of stories, history, with the wonder of craftsmanship and skill that continue to inspire me’ (R. Shaw in conversation with Kunsthalle Wien, in Raqib Shaw Absence of God, exh. cat., White Cube, London, 2009, p. 107).
‘Kashmir was named paradise by the Mughal emperor Jehangir, who said that, “if there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”’ (R. Shaw, quoted in Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 16).
Towering above the viewer, Raqib Shaw’s Absence of God II presents a glittering, opulent phantasmagoria. Across two monumental panels, Shaw unfolds an intricate, hedonistic panorama, a visionary universe populated by numerous Kinnara simultaneously performing acts of bondage, flagellation and ritual disembowelment. Upon a clamouring trellis, set against a majestic Himalayan backdrop, Shaw weaves a mesmerizing optical dialogue, a chaotic spatial conundrum in which foreground and background shift in and out of focus. This vertiginous experience belies a sagacious manipulation of an immense number of Art historical, mythological, and poetic references. Within this internal tension, Absence of God II further contracts the inward-looking atmosphere of mid Edo Japan, and with it the work of Japanese painter Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800), whose name “Jakuchu” is taken from the Tao Te Ching and meaning ‘like the void’.
Executed in 2008, Absence of God II is a magnificent example of the magical, kaleidoscopic worlds for which the artist is best known. It is the second in a series of eight works which were exhibited together at the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, in 2009. Commenting on the title of the series, Norman Rosenthal has written, ‘That absence has been felt by many thinking people and poets, at least since the 19th century, and may lead easily to a fear of the void. But it can also be a spur to an artist to fill that void’ (N. Rosenthal, ‘Raqib Shaw – conjuror of magical worlds’, The Telegraph, 20 May 2009). For Shaw, whose language is one of proliferation, luxuriance and abundance, his response to this void is deeply rooted in the splendour of his Kashmiri homeland. ‘Kashmir’, Shaw says, ‘was named paradise by the Mughal emperor Jehangir, who said that, “if there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”’ (R. Shaw, quoted in Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 16). Though Shaw’s orgiastic visions profess an ungodly decadence, they are nonetheless expressions of ecstatic, Utopian fantasy.
Shaw’s rich cultural heritage has had a critical impact on the development of his oeuvre. ‘[In Kashmir] the pace of life was very slow’, the artist has recalled. ‘I would spend my time reading second-hand copies of the English classics and admiring the seasons. My earliest memory of Kashmir is that of colour-all kinds of flowers, totally uncoordinated ... I used to live in an imaginary world, had invisible friends-most of them gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology. My private tutors where Hindu Pundits and they would explain how the Himalayas were actually the home of Shiva and how every name of a mountain range, lake, glacier and village in Kashmir was named after a mythological figure or event. There were so many stories that would conjure up fantastic visions’ (R. Shaw, quoted in D. Rimanelli, ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’, Raqib Shaw, Garden of Earthly Delights, exh. cat., Deitch Projects, New York, 2005).
Born into a family of carpet makers and shawl traders, Shaw grew up surrounded by exceptional textiles with exquisite and elaborate patterns. When he moved to London in 1993, a new set of influences began to filter through his imagination: paintings by Botticelli, Holbein and Piranesi in the National Gallery, birds and beasts housed in the Natural History Museum, the wildlife documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, illustrations in forensic medical journals, and images culled from contemporary culture. Alongside the Old Masters’ depictions of imperial Rome, ancient ruins and the English royal court, Shaw found inspiration in the indulgent extravagance of Moghul India – its floral fabrics and marble inlay designs – as well as the chrysanthemum studies of Katsushika Hokusai. He devoured the Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, pouring over translations of works such as Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Arabian Nights. The depth and diversity of his visual archive is borne out in the fantastical collisions and fusions that take place upon the teeming surfaces of his works.
Ultimately, however, Shaw’s surging repository of imagery is channelled through a precise, finely-calibrated method. Small paper drawings are transferred to acetate and then projected onto panels. Starting from the centre and working outwards, Shaw reproduces his individual drawings in pen. ‘I normally have an idea of what I want the painting to be’, he claims, ‘but the compositions take on a life of their own depending on how I feel at that moment, day, month or year’ (R. Shaw in conversation with Kunsthalle Wien, in Raqib Shaw Absence of God, exh. cat., White Cube, London, 2009, p. 107). Once the arrangement of the composition has been finalised, the panel is removed from the wall, laid flat, and the drawn contours are carefully traced with stained-glass liner. Paint is then poured into the delineated shapes using small plastic tubes and refined using a porcupine quill, before glitter and crystals are added. For Shaw, this meticulous process induces a meditative, therapeutic state of calm. As he explains, ‘the reason I started painting was because interaction with people, with society, caused me a lot of anxiety … I needed a space to deal with this anxiety. The paintings are based on channelling that anxiety, on concentrating on something. It is very much like those Shamanic practices where people beat the drums so that they go on to another reality, another space. And that is why you see [in my work] this constant obsession with detail, this constant craziness. What I particularly like is when you go very close to the work: every square metre is absolutely perfect. And [it contains this] incredible repetition: on and on. Maybe this repetition, in a way, calms the anxiety’ (R. Shaw, 2008, quoted in H. K. Bhabha, ‘An Art of Exquisite Anxiety’, in Raqib Shaw Absence of God, exh. cat., White Cube, London, 2009, p. 9).