Beyond East West Opposition: Raqib Shaw at the MFAH

Imagine peering into a gallery so grand it fills your view. Every surface is covered with artworks depicting elaborate, colorful landscapes, mythical creatures, and faceted details with surfaces so rich they seem to be lit from within. A central figure in this gallery stands atop a wooden crate labeled “fragile,” triumphant and regal in his stance, holding a toilet plunger overhead as though it were a scepter. Looking through the depths of the room reveals an outside world of darkness, flames, and chaos.

Here, the figure is the artist Raqib Shaw, adorned in an elegant silk robe and Venetian mask, and the view is courtesy of The Retrospective 2002-22 (2015-2022), a painting of almost ten feet across that immerses viewers into a world that is at once humorous and foreboding. It took Shaw seven years to make and it surveys twenty years of his paintings, placing him and his works among the masters and theirs, and borrowing from Giovanni Paolo Panini’s views of Rome.

Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West, on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston June 9 through Sept. 2, features works like the one described above, each painting ornately blending Eastern and Western influences, depicting hope and despair. Initiated by the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, the exhibition’s Houston iteration is organized by MFAH Isabel Brown Wilson Curator Modern & Contemporary Art Alison de Lima Greene and Curatorial Associate Katie O’Hara. The touring show will travel to the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in California.

“Often we think that an immersive environment means that the artwork has to fill a gallery,” says Greene. “But each one of Shaw’s paintings is in itself a convincing immersive environment, drawing the viewer in for close looking, which I believe is one of his great achievements.” From its inception, Ballads of East and West was deliberately curated to center on Shaw’s self-portraits and it features seventeen paintings, two tapestries, and one sculpture, of which The Retrospective 2002-22 is just one example.

Shaw was born in Kolkata, India, in 1974, where he was influenced by Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian cultures. His intricate, colorful works read like visual diaries of his childhood memories growing up in the Valley of Kashmir.

“There’s a sense of craft that animates Shaw’s work. When he was nineteen, his family sent him to London to learn the family business. He went to the National Gallery for the first time—a visit during which he had an in-depth encounter with the history of Western art—and he fell in love with Renaissance paintings,” says Greene.

Today the artist lives in exile in London, where he arrived in 1998 to study art. He has made a beautiful if not reclusive life for himself in an old sausage factory, complete with an elaborate garden.

To achieve his now signature level of intricate and ornate detail, Shaw found a modern day equivalent to traditional cloisonné techniques, hallmarks of decorative arts in both Buddhist and Islamic cultures. He uses porcupine quills and needles to apply enamel paint, outlined in embossed gold.

The surfaces of Shaw’s paintings shimmer with jewels, glitter, and semiprecious stones, highlighting the conflict present in almost every work, evoking Kashmir’s turbulent history and ongoing conflict as well as global ecological crisis.

According to the MFAH, “Subverting geographical boundaries, Shaw blurs the lines between art and ornament—Japanese aesthetics, Mughal artifacts, Islamic textiles, and Indo-Persian architecture converge with citations from Renaissance masters.”

“Shaw’s exquisitely crafted self-portraits repeatedly reference sacred imagery, but there is also a degree of humor and the profane in his paintings,” says Greene. For example, Ode to the Country without a Post Office (2019-20) contemplates the loss of Kashmiri land. In the foreground, the artist, wearing a kimono, sits on a large rug on a balcony, pouring over an otherworldly illuminated section of the floor from which fireflies emerge. The light and focus he depicts contrasts with the darkness and chaos below. Last Rites of the Artist’s Ego at Shankryacharya Temple (after Ludovico Mazzolino) (2015-16) presents a skeletal version of Shaw standing beside a coffin in which his earthly body rests, surrounded by snow, ice, and blackbirds, many of which wrestle in pairs.

Ballads of East and West pushes beyond immediate assumptions of opposition. The duality of hope and despair echoed in the exhibition’s title, which comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name, spurs us to consider a time when such divisions fall away. Here, Shaw pictures a spirit of reconciliation that spans the globe.