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Remembering Partition with New North South: Raqib Shaw

The Whitworth welcomes Raqib Shaw with a palatial yet haunting new installation


An opulent melting pot of East and West, fantasy and reality: Raqib Shaw is the next focus of our feature on the New North South programme across Manchester.

Upon entering the Raqib Shaw exhibit, what is immediately evident is the true drama of his work. The amalgam of selected drawings, textiles, and medieval coins — taken from the Manchester archives — is intermingled with his vibrant enamel works and dynamic sculptures, creating an ‘experience exhibition’ of theatrical proportions. As a backdrop to the scene, Shaw’s intricately designed wallpaper — commissioned by the Whitworth — adds depth and a mystical atmosphere to the room, tying the collection together.

In fitting with the theme of the New North and South, the installation appears to blur the boundaries between Eastern and Western artistic tradition. Using the rich colours of the East to depict ethereal scenes, created using the ancient Asian cloisonné technique (shaping enamel paints into gold outlines with a porcupine quill) one unexpectedly notes artistic tropes synonymous with the Western Baroque and Renaissance movement, including that of the ‘Flemish Primitives.’

The central focus of his magnificent work Self-portrait in the studio at Peckham (after Steenwyk the Younger) II (2014-15) appears to be a convex mirror, over which the crouched central figure, which seems to be Shaw depicting himself as an oriental re-imagining of St Jerome, looms.

While one may not immediately take note of this aspect, what is intriguing is that the depiction of convex mirrors in art was a key aspect of the Early Renaissance ‘Flemish Primitive’ movement. In fact one of the Flemish masters, Jan van Eyck, most famously incorporated a convex mirror into his oil painting, The Arnolfini Marriage (1434), claiming that it represented “the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term.”

Seen in the reference in the title, Self-portrait in the studio at Peckham (after Steenwyk the Younger) II, it becomes clear that the allusion to this Flemish movement was intentional, as Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger played a large part in the Flemish Baroque movement. Shaw’s depictions of plentiful and dynamic imagined scenes seem akin to the fantastical yet further references to the Western Renaissance and Baroque periods appear throughout the room. Most notably in Shaw’s choice to display a collection of Renaissance and Medieval coins originating from Mantua, Milan, Padua, and the Kingdom of Naples — which are on loan from the Manchester Museum.

Furthermore, in his piece Self Portrait as Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) Shaw portrays himself as a Shakespearean creation wearing a form of oriental kimono. One cannot fail to notice that concepts of the Western Renaissance of Europe are a key influence in Shaw’s work.

Having been born in Calcutta and growing up in Kashmir, before coming to London to study at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art, Shaw appears to project this assimilated identity in his work. The intriguing combination of Eastern techniques, symbolism, and colour, with that of Western Renaissance and Baroque artistic traditions creates work which questions the snobbery with which art historians have tended to overlook the art of the East, favouring its Western, European counterparts.

In this captivating installation, Shaw marries two geographically separate artistic movements, reflecting the beautiful pluralism which Manchester celebrates in its diverse yet united community.

The Raqib Shaw exhibition runs from 24 June – November 2017.