RAQIB SHAW with Allie Biswas
Raqib Shaw’s narrative-fueled fantastical landscapes draw upon his homeland of Kashmir, making reference to issues of memory, history, and identity. The painter’s sources are far-reaching, ranging from his own studio in South London (a former sausage factory transformed by Shaw into an oasis filled with bonsai trees and beehives) to ancient mythology and Hindu iconography. Shaw’s exhibition Self Portraits, based in part on Old Master works in the collections at London’s National Gallery and the Prado, is currently on view at White Cube Bermondsey (until September 11).
Rail: When did you become interested in historic European painting? You’ve consistently drawn upon this type of material since your first exhibition, in 2004, which was based on the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
Shaw: Coming from Kashmir, I hadn’t really seen paintings before. Because that culture—which has more to do with objects and carvings and Islamic influences, for example—had nothing to do with the concept of western painting. The only paintings one would see were reproductions. When I left Kashmir and went to London, where I worked at my family’s business for a while prior to attending Central Saint Martin’s, I visited the National Gallery and saw Holbein’s The Ambassadors. At that point I told myself that it would be a very good idea to dedicate my life to painting.
Rail: How did you get on at art school?
Shaw: I stayed on to do my M.A. After you do a B.A. at Saint Martin’s you automatically go on to the Royal College. What they do at the RCA is a two-year M.A. where they break you and remold you. I didn’t want any breaking. I was unteachable, I just needed some more time. It was brilliant at Saint Martin’s, really fabulous. And they left me alone. I used to have my own studio in Hackney and that’s where I used to live. No heating, for five years. I used to have to shower in the baby’s wading pool in the park because there wasn’t a shower. It was tough, and it was also, without any doubt, the most incredible time of my life. It was really unbelievable. Darling, people talk, but you have to go through it. When you’re faced with such acute poverty, it gives you strength in a way.
Rail: What was the general attitude to painting at that time?
Shaw: Everyone was into conceptual art and installations and performance. There was a small band of painters, and they were considered extremely stuck-in-time people. Nowadays painting has become fashionable because of the auction houses. Everyone wants to be a painter. You can see how the art market influences artists—more so than historically any time before. It’s quite ridiculous. Anyway, back then I didn’t allow anyone to influence me. That’s why I was the only one looking at old master paintings. I couldn’t relate to contemporary art. I really couldn’t. Aside from that, I wasn’t at all interested in oil painting. I very much wanted to have my own language.
Rail: And you chose enamel, which continues to be your primary material. What was your introduction to this type of paint?
Shaw: I started out with Hammerite paints from Leyland’s on Shaftsbury Avenue. I realized that when you mix them, they react with each other. If you really look at enamel painting, there’s a certain language. Look at painters like Ian Davenport and Gary Hume. My first proper painting was after Cranach’s Cupid Complaining to Venus at the National Gallery. But, I would say that only recently, in the last two years, have my paintings really matured.
Rail: Would you credit that to anything in particular?
Shaw: I found this paint-mixing machine that they don’t make anymore—it’s one of those really old ones. Previously I could only work with four primary colors, but now, with this mixing machine, I can get any color I want. For the first time these paintings are able to address other sorts of ideas.
Rail: Your hometown of Kashmir is the backbone of your work, in many ways.
Shaw: I didn’t have any intention at all of leaving Kashmir, because it was incredible—and I’m not being nostalgic here. It was beautiful in summer, breathtaking in winter. The city of Srinagar would be, like, thirty degrees, and everyone would escape to the mountains. Then it all changed. It changed terribly. And that Kashmir has gone forever because of terrorism and fundamentalism. My family was lucky enough to go to New Delhi, but many people didn’t have that opportunity, and hundreds and thousands of people died.
Rail: Is memory, then, the guiding force in your work?
Shaw: Yes, I would say so. Exile is a strange thing. The Kashmir I’m engaging with in these paintings doesn’t exist anymore. It lives in memory. Ultimately they’re all autobiographical in a way. They really are a sort of coded diary of my existence.
Rail: How does Kashmir relate to your reliance on the Old Masters? Would it be accurate to consider your work as something of an amalgamation of the two?
Shaw: The paintings are referencing Persian art, Indian art, western art—it’s an absolute amalgamation. The mentality, though—and what is going on in them—is completely eastern. Also, to make clear, my paintings are not pastiches of Old Master paintings! I feel that it’s best to learn from those artists because, in that way, I know exactly what the limitations of the medium are, as well as what can be achieved. At the end of the day, I feel like the two reasons these damn things are painted are: one, I need to have a good reason to justify my life to myself; and two: they will be a source for painters in the future. I’m asking, what can painting be in our damned age? What are the possibilities of image making?
Rail: Your work is quite obviously technically intricate and presumably time-consuming as well.
Shaw: A single painting can take months to complete. If I’m extremely lucky, I’ll get five or six paintings done a year, at the most, and those aren’t even big ones. I’ve been working on this large painting, which I’ve sent to storage now, for the past eight or nine years. It’s a big Paradise Lost painting and it’s supposed to be ten feet by 130 feet. Only sixty feet are painted, and sixty percent is not good enough, so it will have to be repainted. It’s almost impossible to overproduce these works. Persistence is all I have to offer. One has to go all the way, otherwise there’s no point.
Rail: What would your process usually be for completing a painting?
Shaw: It often starts as an elaborate drawing on tracing paper before being transferred onto board. I’ll outline the composition with a type of gold paint that is used in stained glass windows, and once that dries I’ll apply enamel onto small sections, which I manipulate with a porcupine quill. Then, if I’m embellishing surfaces, I’ll add tiny Swarovski crystals.
Rail: I find that they radiate a sort of superiority. Maybe that has something to do with all of the gold?
Shaw: You know, I went to White Cube to see the installation of my self-portraits: they’re snobbish paintings. I could feel snobbery from them. They are a window into this world, a window that you can look into as a voyeur. But the thing with these paintings is, the more you look, the more you find. You have to engage with them. They say most people look at a painting for a maximum of twelve to fifteen seconds, and apparently that is a good amount of time! Can you believe it? But yes, I would say that my paintings are visually seductive. Though it’s almost an illusion, the surface.
Rail: Would you say that being able to display your technical abilities is important to the work?
Shaw: This mentality of—and it’s a very unfashionable word nowadays— skill. There’s a very deliberate, conscious decision to make things less skillful, which is not necessarily a school I subscribe to. I think it was Yeats who said “poets, learn your trade.” It is skill that needs a lot of work, a lot of practice, for paintings to develop very slowly.
Rail: You are exceptionally committed. You pretty much never leave the studio, do you?
Shaw: Darling, I haven’t had a holiday since 1998. There are sacrifices, of course. It is years and years and years of focusing on the same thing. What really interested me was what sort of contribution I could make to painting. I really believe in that Japanese sentiment. For example, a potter keeps on making pots; in your mid-70s, you make this one pot that really captures the essence of the life of the potter: this intangible, almost divine energy, that can only happen if one works in that discipline endlessly for a very long time, as opposed to this trend of the new new new artwork. Painting is a lovely profession. You’re left alone; you don’t need to bother with the outside world. I do try to maintain a certain kind of purity, because it’s a very good idea not to contaminate the work with external concerns. It’s dire out there. The state of the world is absolutely ridiculous.
Rail: Are there any downsides to having such a devotion to your art?
Shaw: There is always that thing of walking on the edge of the samurai sword. Miss, I can’t even see these paintings anymore, because I look at them every single day. I’ve always lived in a studio so there’s never been that element of Oh let’s go to work, which I think is such a horrible, horrible thing to do. But, yes, sometimes I don’t know why the fuck I do this to myself. That’s why I have to make sure that I have enormous amounts of gardening to do! You have no idea how difficult it is to look after these damn things, because of this weather.
Rail: Is your studio an evocation of the Kashmiri landscape? It’s quite a sight. The bonsai garden in particular was a surprise.
Shaw: I did see quite a lot of horror when I was growing up. In a way it is escapism, of course, one-hundred percent. It’s a fear of society. But let me tell you, although on the surface it looks like a jolly place, I promise you, the studio is not a jolly place!
Rail: By that I’m going to assume you simply mean that everyone is extremely serious about what goes on here. I’d hardly describe it as a morbid place, that’s impossible with all of these flowers.
Shaw: [Laughter.] I’m so spoiled here, because it’s truly a temple dedicated to art. This was my dream since college days: how incredible would it be if the only concern you had in your life was art. Everyone here, the moment they enter the studio door—this is what everyone knows: you leave your problems and everything else outside. What we do here is the biggest crisis in the studio! Now there’s a slug and snail infestation because we had a mild winter; that is a massive, massive crisis. Or the moon is not painted in the right way, so it has to be done, like, ten times to get it right. That is a crisis. There is no crisis about whether or not someone is in a good mood, bad mood, bad relationship. That is such an absolute waste of time. Children? Oh please.
Rail: Who has time for domestic nonsense.
Shaw: We hate domestic things. I don’t have a dining room table downstairs because it all starts with a dining table. And then you start inviting people over and then you get into a relationship and it all starts with a fucking dining table. [Laughter.] I haven’t been in a relationship since 1990 because, you know what, my darling, I’m so sorry, I’m not going to wake up in the morning and say, “Oh honey, how are you today?” Fuck that shit! We never serve food in the studio, only champagne. Or tea.
Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She is based in London and New York.