"My earliest memory of Kashmir is that of colour - all kinds of flowers, totally uncoordinated. Being a loner, I used to live in an imaginary world, had invisible friends - most of them gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology"
The artist quoted in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Deitch Projects, Raqib Shaw ~ Garden of Earthly Delights, 2005
Encountering Shaw's Garden of Earthly Delights III is like entering into a kaleidoscopic underwater fantasy. Jewelled coral reefs grow amongst schools of glittering dancing fish, while mythical half-animal, half-human sea creatures playfully rejoice in an underwater symphony. Recently exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, as part of the 2006 exhibition Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, the grand scale, bewildering technique and glowing opulence of Raqib Shaw's Garden of Earthly Delights III, 2003 marks it out as the undisputed masterpiece of his most important series to date. Of Indian and Kashmiri descent, but having studied at St Martins College in London, Shaw here masterfully fuses cultural influences from the East and West. The work is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch's epic late 15th Century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, however here, Shaw's incredible underwater fantasy reinvents themes of hedonistic pleasure and whimsical surrealist fantasy to create a contemporary re-interpretation of extreme bliss.
Born in Calcutta and brought up in the cultural wealth of Kashmir, Raqib Shaw's ancestry plays a central role in the creation of his elaborately layered paintings. "Kashmir" Shaw says, "was named paradise by the Mughal emperor Jehangir, who said 'If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here'" (Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, p. 16). Themes of utopia or paradise and extreme pleasure are central to Shaw's work, the pinnacle being the Garden of Earthly Delights series. Drawing on sources from the eastern cultures of India, China and Japan, Shaw employs designs and patterns recalling Oriental carpets, Persian miniatures and Jamevar shawls. He denies any kind of geographical categorization, claiming that "My work has nothing to do with what Kashmir stands for because in a sense as a child I had so many influences. My parents are Muslim, my teachers were Hindu scholars and I went to a Christian school, and historically Kashmir was Buddhist" (ibid. p. 16). His influences from Japan include Hokusai prints, byobu (screens), urushi (lacquer ware) and uchikake (wedding kimonos). Shaw elaborately adorns his surfaces with semi-precious stones, glitter, crystals and pools of cloisonné-like enamel. The combination of these rich materials with everyday industrial paints and car enamels lends a raw urban modern day sensibility to his work, reflecting Shaw's interest towards a Western perspective and his current surroundings of London, where he attended Saint Martins College and has lived and worked since his mid-teens.
References to Western art also prevail, in particular Bosch's original painting and the half-human, half-animal creatures that swim amongst his surface. Both works are a celebration of carnal pleasures - densely populated orgies of naked hybridised bodies, with an all-over composition, multiple vignettes, and an emphasis on luxury and pleasure - ultimately, both works are on the eternal quest for paradise. However, where Bosch's utopia remains in a fantasy garden world, Shaw delves into the deep depths of the sea and where Bosch's work was executed with a technique in the grand tradition of European History painting, with albeit heightened colours, Shaw's technique is entirely different altogether. Lavishly decorated on a monumental scale and with an incredibly dense texture and surface sheen, Shaw uses the precision of a porcupine quill to render the closest and most exact detail. Underwater sea specimens abound in an array of sweltering colour, patterning the backdrop in an ornate and intricate design, set off by a stunning cobalt blue. He uses gold stained glass paint to outline each fictional character and achieves such brilliant colour from his use of metallic industrial paints and glossy car enamels, recalling the materials of Jackson Pollock and his 'all-over' painting style. Shaw has stated "it's like when he [Pollock] was one with the medium and he became the medium and then he was lost in the medium. When that happens with paintings and some drawings, that is when they are most successful to me, because they come out of this mental space which has no inhibitions whatsoever" (the artist in interview, Wasafiri, Raqib Shaw in conversation with Richard Dyer, Issue no. 42, Summer 2004, p. 79).
Woven within these richly seductive surfaces, there is a fantasy being played out, masked by the obsessive detail and ornate texture. Throughout, there is a tension between abstraction and figuration, an undetermined narrative. Although Shaw's scene appears to be highly fictional, there is very little invented in his creations - often visiting the Natural History Museum, Shaw studies different varieties of flora and fauna to incorporate into his work. Ultimately, Shaw's composition is an endless fascination with culture, weaving together elements from different worlds to compose a lyrical masterpiece of the 21st Century. Another work from the series, Garden of Earthly Delight X, 2004, holds a permanent place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Acrylic, glitter, enamel, rhinestones and mixed media on board, in three parts
London, Victoria Miro Gallery, Raqib Shaw: Garden of Earthly Delights, 2004
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, 2006, pp. 52-3, no. 16, illustrated in colour & p. 17, detail illustrated in colour
Each: 305 by 152.5cm. 120 by 60in. Overall: 305 by 457.5cm. 120 by 180in.
Morgan Falconer, 'Pleasure Gardens', in Whats On, 18 February 2004, p. 27, detail illustrated in colour
Richard Dyer, 'Raqib Shaw in conversation with Richard Dyer', in Wasafiri, Issue no. 42, Summer 2004, pp. 72-3, details illustrated in colour
Glenn D. Lowry, 'Gained in Translation', in ARTnews, March 2006, p. 124, illustrated in colour
Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Private Collection, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner