by Rosalyn D`MelloSep 16, 2022
In this maze-like city of alleyways and canals, the Venice Biennale is a curated world of mystery, awe and magic. Amidst multiple artful moments popping up all across the floating city, one of the not-to-miss highlights is Raqib Shaw’s solo exhibition in Ca' Pesaro - a mid 17th century baroque palace designed by Baldassarre Longhena. As part of the extended program of the 59th edition of the Biennale, this prominent Venetian structure has been transformed into a splendid ‘Palazzo della Memoria’ or a ‘Palace of Memories’. Curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal, the exhibition engulfs the beholder into Shaw’s world of myths and epochs, as he narrates us through his 12 intricate tapestry-like paintings. “Executed with a meticulously detailed and uniquely calibrated sense of both drawing and colour, calculated to astonish […] each painting demands time to discover evermore on further looking,” says Sir Rosenthal.
Born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1974 and raised in Kashmir, the London based artist’s recent body of works introduce a melange of cultural aesthetics and a contemporary rendition on long-established painterly traditions. His art blurs the line between the past and present, the real and the imaginary, the palatial and the horrific. Amidst all these depicted dichotomies, Shaw’s enamelled art and miniature detailing allures one towards delayering these mystical intricacies and eventually finds oneself walking into sheer magnificence, what I would call the magnum opus or the ultimate grand finale of this exhibition.
Shaw’s art is a meeting point wherein the east meets the west. There is a diasporic sense of identity, time and space that is highlighted across certain curated elements in his paintings. Each piece - quite often monumental in scale - holds a unique aesthetic, an imaginative aura and a subtle hint of connected personal history. The only constant across these traversing paradisical landscapes is Shaw’s self-representation, quite often accompanied by his ‘fur friend’, Mr C and his very own South London Garden, that inadvertently inspired the curation of his painterly landscapes. “During the lockdown, I had the opportunity to create an alpine rockery at the studio with the intention of setting the compositions of the latest paintings within the garden that acted as a life study as well as a theatrical backdrop where the drama of life was re-enacted and hence documented with the usual exaggeration and manipulation as demanded by the paintings,” shares the artist.
Shaw transfigures his garden into a verdant backdrop for the now-lost world of Kashmir, and for the imaginary paradise of a childhood landscape tinged with the melancholy of exile. The evocative landscape almost reminds one of the eternally etched but infamously historic exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s. His art has a diasporic sense of the Kashmiri culture. Recalling this rich culture Shaw says, “I always want to think of Kashmir as the birthplace of Shaivism, the land of the Sufis, with the unique language spoken mainly in metaphor, where the people are inseparable from nature and the incredible beauty that surrounds them, a culture deeply steeped in animism where humans lived in harmony with nature. Sadly, now it is different from my romanticised vision based on histories of the past.”
His art is autobiographical in nature. Every motif draws a direct imaginary parallel to Shaw’s life, who hails from a family of merchants. His early experiences with all things antique - heavily embellished carpets, exotic fabrics and shiny gilded jewellery - translate into a highly intricate and brightly coloured opulent imagery. Recalling a very personal memory Shaw shares, “The most relevant of the objects from that time would be the Jamevar shawl presented to me by the person closest to me in my family (who sadly passed away during the early months of the pandemic), which somehow became the metaphoric symbol of my association, relationship and memories of the past, appearing in many paintings until it is consumed by the flames in The Final Submission in Fire on Ice”.
In order to achieve this distinctive visual lexicon, Shaw incorporates a painstaking method that recalls the cloisonné technique - an ancient art technique used to decorate metal objects and ceramics. Thus, this enamelled detailing demands the eye to wander and fully absorb within Shaw’s parallel universe.
While Shaw’s visual aesthetics draw inspiration from his cultural roots and origin, the artworks’ composition and formal structure are inspired by legendary Italian Renaissance greats such as Tintoretto, Giorgione and Giovanni Paolo Pannini. Revisiting his initial encounter with these Italian masters, Shaw shares, “Although I have admired these paintings since my salad days, it was not until just before the lockdown of 2020 that I visited Venice for the first time to see these masterworks in flesh. Considering the historic importance of Venice as a city built on trade that connected the East to the West that also gave the world some of its greatest artists, it felt natural for me to converse with the Venetian masters as a painter from Asian origin… perhaps from a contemporary hybridised perspective of the role reversal of sorts between the Orientalism and the Occidentalism.”
The grand finale of the “Palazzo della Memoria” has to be a painting that celebrates Shaw’s sheer talent, undefinable magnificence and a curated world of awe, magic and glamour. The artist’s magnum opus, The Retrospective 2002-2022, almost encapsulates Shaw’s two decade long artistic career trajecting some of his major works from the early 2000s inspired by Holbein to pieces currently on display in the ongoing ‘Palazzo della Memoria’. “I wanted to paint a picture that would document all major paintings to date, chronologising not only my development as a painter but also as a human being,” says Raqib. “It also satarises the notion of a great artist and comments on the fleeting impermanent nature of our existence”, he adds.
A relatively modest title, The Retrospective, has a sense of looking back at the past while maintaining a strong constant within the present. Painted across almost half a decade, this masterpiece explores the notion of painting as an aide-mémoire. The very same idea was long explored almost two centuries ago in 1757 by Giovanni Paolo Pannini. The stormy foothills of Kashmiri Himalayas form the background while some of his recent painterly renditions occupy the foreground. It is indeed an aesthetic chaos that demands a fine gaze to gradually de-layer every element and eventually be surrounded by sheer magic.
Shaw’s panoramic palatial structure becomes a melange of multiple architectural tropes - Renaissance oval dome, Noe-classical pillars, Art Deco flooring, French baroque windows, Victorian medieval crystal chandelier and Mughalised jharokha balcony atop. Commenting on the underlying thread behind this melange of aesthetics, Shaw says, “I think the constant common would have to be the eternal search and consequent expression of what it means to be alive and human through the medium of fine art. The astounding ability of man to create works of exceptional beauty that celebrate life in all its disguises while going through intolerable adversity, hence turning negative into positive is a remarkable quality that only we as a species possess.”
Amidst all this surrounding brouhaha, the entire composition centres around Raqib Shaw holding ‘Mr. C’, dressed in a richly embroidered silk cloak and fanciful headdress. Not to miss the prominent spot given to the bonsai plant, which is elegantly parked at the foot of Shaw's rustic pedestal! It almost seems like Shaw, a great magician at work, is all set to cast his magic and put us under a spell as we encounter the grandiosity of Palazzo della Memoria.
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.
Click here to read more about STIRringDreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.