By Jo Manby
The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER
On view until 19 November 2017
As promised, my next review of The Whitworth’s summer exhibitions explores the art of London-based artist Raqib Shaw. His gloriously opulent exhibition is part of the South Asia art and culture programme that marks the 70th anniversary of Partition. The programme is part of the work of the New North & South network which involves ten North of England organisations.
The exhibition is co-curated by Dr Maria Balshaw, Director of Tate, Diana Campbell Betancourt, Director of Dhaka Art Summit and the artist himself.
Some key facts about Raqib Shaw:
- Shaw was born in Calcutta and grew up in Kashmir, which he describes as a very beautiful place etched on his memory.
- His family are involved in textiles.
- Originally he wanted to be a teacher of English literature.
- He is totally devoted to his art and lives for his work.
- His Peckham studio doubles as his home and is filled with beautiful objects and trailing plants.
The interior of the first main gallery at The Whitworth is transformed, and now has the feel of an exclusive boudoir-style club. Shaw’s newly commissioned wallpaper covers every wall, dark both in colour and theme (it’s available to buy in The Whitworth shop as a limited edition). It is called ‘After A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (see below) and features phantasmagorical beings intertwined with braided creepers and branches over a background the colour of lapis lazuli.
Equally theatrical and rich are his huge ‘cloisonné’ (an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects) works. ‘Self Portrait in the Studio at Peckham’ is one of them. It is like a nightmare vision of a Renaissance altarpiece. Architecturally it is familiar, but it is encrusted with vicious little skeletons and ghosts in hi-definition primary colours. Works like this by Shaw can command seven-figure sums.
A museum case explains the cloisonné process. Little square cloisonné panels from the Whitworth’s voluminous and fascinating collections are laid out to show the successive stages of the process, from drawing out the pattern to soldering outlines in gold wire, and then filling in the shallow pools that makes with enamel. This is an interesting interpretive device, and certainly gave me an insight into the minutely detailed processes behind these dazzling pieces of art.
Shaw has also produced incredible baroque-style bronze sculptures depicting writhing figures with vampiric ‘dentata’ at their crotches. Displayed alongside these incredible examples of technical precision are other items from the Whitworth’s collections, selected by Shaw, demonstrating technical precision of other kinds:
• a Hokusai original
• a richly embroidered kimono
• a hoard of coins
• an ornate Dutch flower painting
• a drawing by Renaissance master Mantegna
In Shaw’s Peckham studio in London he has many studio assistants, and also drafts in technical services to realise his ideas as necessary. This is a fascinating aspect of both contemporary and traditional historic art production. In a Renaissance artist’s studio there would be pigment grinders and painters of drapery and landscape. This freed up the lead artist to concentrate on their signature elements – the composition, the faces, the hands (Shaw has someone to mix his paints and someone else to play a piano for him while he works). Similarly, contemporary artists such as the American Jeff Koons and the British Damien Hirst employ the services of foundries and model production companies to turn their ideas into reality.
I loved this show (by July I’d already been to see it three times) because it is evidence of an artist who is on the one hand a technical perfectionist but on the other is a complete visionary, with an amazing depth of creative imagination. Combined, these attributes mean that Shaw can bring forth into 3-D hard core reality what most of us can only dream of.
The Arts, Media and Sport section of the Resource Centre library contains numerous books on art and design, many of them filled with richly colourful photography and a great source of inspiration for the artistically inclined. In particular I like:
- Islamic Art Close-up, Sheila R Canby. London: The British Museum, 2015
- Indian art close-up, Anna L. Dallapiccola. London: The British Museum, 2015
- India using third world art for creative activities – Indian wood block printing, teachers pack, focusing on Indian wood block printing containing background information on India, details on the effects of protectionism on Third World textile economies and teachers notes
- Indian Handicrafts, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi: 1968