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Raqip Shaw at the Manchester Art Gallery

Raqib Shaw conjures up a fantastical world in which the beautiful and the grotesque collide, but somehow misses the mark, says Esmé Clifford Astbury


The entrance of the Manchester Art Gallery is wreathed in flowers, and beyond it lies the dark and deeply unsettling world of Raqib Shaw. Surrounded by lush foliage, a white swan lurches over a human-like figure, pecking out its innards. This painted bronze sculpture is a reworking of the myth of Narcissus. Shaw takes the moment of Narcissus’ self-discovery and turns it into something much more gruesome. Narcissus’ eyes have been gouged out and his bat-like features are contorted in agony. The artist used his own body as the model for Narcissus; beauty, in the shape of a swan, has turned on its creator.

A collaboration with Rudolfinum Prague, the exhibition presents a dazzling array of Shaw’s paintings, sculptures and drawings. It occupies the entire second floor of the gallery and has spilled out into its permanent collection. Opposite George Stubbs’ Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians (c. 1765) is Shaw’s response to the piece, which he created especially for this exhibition. Rather than making any sort of political statement about the Orientalist undertones of this painting, Shaw replaces one of the Indians with a monkey, who lazily smokes a hookah while chimeras engage in a fight to the death all around. It is hard to see what the point is here.

Born in Calcutta, Shaw grew up in Kashmir and moved to London in 1998, where he studied at Central Saint Martins. His art, a luxurious blend of Eastern and Western influences, is filled with cultural contradictions: a snarling macaque sports the Crown Jewels, Saint Sebastian has the head of a tiger, Krishna-like figures howl before classical ruins, and warrior monkeys engage in fierce battle by a picnic basket filled with champagne. Shaw’s ornate style is reminiscent of Kashmiri and Japanese textiles and Persian miniatures, and the influence of ‘great masters’ like Holbein and Bosch is also apparent in his treatment of dark subjects.

Shaw’s art is also highly personal. As I make my way around the gallery, I gain an insight into his fears and fantasies. The vibrant colours and jewel-encrusted surfaces of his paintings belie the violence and eroticism of the artist’s imagery. Shaw’s is a world that is free from restraint and morality, where debauchery is elevated to the sublime. His work, featuring a bejewelled lobster ravishing a bird-headed man and scores of monkeys in bondage, also reveals a fascination for sadomasochism and bestiality.

These scenes, at once beautiful and grotesque, are executed with a precision that can only elicit admiration. Every detail is outlined in embossed gold, and Shaw works with metallic industrial paint, manipulating them with a porcupine quill. I cannot help but think that the artist takes a certain pleasure in the element of masochism involved in the production of his art.

Raqib Shaw is a master craftsman. His intricate pieces, though often verging on garish, evidently involve a great deal of skill and are, in many respects, beautiful. And yet, they lack intellectual grounding. It feels as though he has thrown a bunch of elements together with no real thought as to their meaning. The breadth of his influences is at once his strength and his downfall. And, as I exit the gallery, I am left wondering: Is there more to Raqib Shaw than the sum of his influences?