by ROSANNA MCLAUGHLIN
Raqib Shaw was born in Calcutta in 1974, and spent most of his youth in Kashmir. He moved to London in 1998 to study at Central St Martins art school, and soon shot to international fame with his flamboyant, fantastical and labour-intensive paintings. His work has since been exhibited at Tate Britain, the Royal Academy and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This summer, his solo show Self Portraits opened at White Cube Bermondsey. A series of paintings four years in the making, they mix Shaw’s personal history with a cornucopia of extravagant cross-cultural references, offset with a spattering of Swarovski crystals. He is also exhibiting three new paintings based on two operas, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, at Glyndebourne opera house in East Sussex.
Shaw’s paintings divide opinion. Critic Roberta Smith once wrote, “It is very difficult to find any redeeming qualities in this end-times expression of luxury and excess” – but they are remarkably lucrative, and, if the crowds at White Cube are anything to go by, remain a popular draw. In 2007, Shaw broke the auction record for an artwork by an Indian artist, when his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights III sold at Sotheby’s for £2.7m.
In 2011, Shaw moved into an old factory in Peckham, south London, converting it into a home, studio and multistorey garden that he rarely leaves. I visit him in this floral fortress, hidden behind hoardings on a busy high street, and feel as if I have stepped into an acid-spiked scene from Brideshead Revisited. Surrounded by dogs, myriad staff, an exquisitely kept bonsai collection and apparently endless reserves of champagne, we discuss childhood, gardening and his route to becoming a painter. Shaw is decadent, highly mannered, and prone to saying outrageous things (many of which are unsuitable for print, and which, in the past, have made him an easy target to lampoon). But there is more to Shaw than meets the eye. Despite his acid tongue and cosseted lifestyle, he is an open, generous and surprisingly vulnerable interviewee, who requires constant chaperoning around his own property; a man who has dedicated his life to the creation of a fantasy world of flowers and fabulousness that he need never leave.
Rosanna Mclaughlin: As your current exhibition Self Portraits at White Cube is your most explicitly autobiographical to date, I thought we could start at the beginning. You moved from Kashmir to the UK in the early 1990s. What prompted this?
Raqib Shaw: Between 1988 and 1990, Kashmir absolutely disintegrated. When I was growing up, never in a million years did I imagine that I would end up living here, because Kashmir was such a beautiful place, with a very old civilisation. On the Hindu side, Kashmir was the birthplace of Kashmir Shaivism and Vedanta philosophy. During the time that Kabul was a centre of learning – can you imagine? Kabul, a centre for learning? – all the philosophers with rather radical ideas would flee to Kashmir because, that way, no one could get them. Kashmir was shut off from the rest of the world for half the year, and there was only a little passage through the mountains before they made the tunnel [the Jawahar Tunnel, which opened in 1956, links the Valley of Kashmir to Jammu]. My father’s side of the family are Sufis, and my grandmother is a Sayyida [a direct descendant of the Islamic prophet]. That was the essence of Kashmir, it was this incredible melting point.
I went to a Catholic school, and we would do the Lord’s Prayer five times a day. What was hilarious was that everyone was Muslim or Hindu, and we would all be singing: “Make me a channel of your peace.” But when there is civil war and political unrest, one realises what it is to be a refugee. In the morning, we had roll calls. When the teacher called out someone’s name and the student wasn't there, there would be this icy silence. I will never forget that silence, because everyone knew the student was not coming back. They were dead.
RM: Did you move directly from Kashmir to London?
RS: I went to school in New Delhi for two years, when I was 17. I was the only so-called Muslim in a Hindu state school, and, by God, was I bullied like hell. All these guys used to call me “Mr Choppy Choppy”. It took me ages to realise that they were talking about the fact that, since I am Muslim, I am supposed to be circumcised. Kids are awful, awful! Because they reflect what they’re taught.
I realised I could not live in New Delhi, and so I asked myself, what is the fairest country in the world? It is a British disease, everyone whinges and complains here, but, in my opinion, it is the nicest country in the world to be in. I came to London with £850 in my suitcase, and this city has been extremely kind to me.
RM: Were you making art when you arrived?
RS: I was working for my family running three shops, one in Piccadilly, one in Mayfair and one on Bond Street. I was a window dresser and a sales boy, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. And then I went to the National Gallery – it sounds like a rather silly, cliched story, but it is exactly what happened – and I saw The Ambassadors [by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533]. What I really loved about The Ambassadors was that it was a painting about merchants. And I thought to myself, I don’t want to be the merchant, I want to be the guy who paints merchants. Merchants are not fascinating; people who paint merchants are far more fascinating.
When I started at Central St Martins, my family disowned me. For them, it was like: “If you’re not going to be working in our business, then fuck off.” I wanted to escape my situation, and I was in love with the modernist, romantic idea of the so-called struggling artist. So I squatted in Hackney Wick, in Percy Dalton’s Peanut Factory. And no one was suppose to live there. I lived there from 1998 to 2003, five years and seven months without heating and without hot water. I had a baby’s paddling pool from Roman Road, which cost £2.80, and two buckets and two electric kettles, and I would warm the water in the kettles, put it in the buckets, and sit in the baby’s paddling pool and wash myself.
RM: You painted The Garden of Earthly Delights – an enormous set of works based on Hieronymus Bosch’s c15th triptych – while you were in Hackney Wick.
RS: The first thing that happens to me when I look at those paintings is that I feel cold. In winter, I used to have a little tent in the studio. Glenn Scott Wright [co-director of the Victoria Miro gallery in London] used to visit my studio, and once I found him looking under the table. I said: “Glen, what are you looking for?” And he said: “Where do you sleep?”
RM: When did things begin to take off for you?
RS: It was the last day of my MA show at St Martins. No one had come, it had been a disaster, and I was thinking: “I need to go and be a waiter.” And then this tall guy started walking around, and one of my friends said to me: “Psst, he’s wearing a suit, he must be important. Why don’t you go and speak to him?” And I said: “Speak to him? And what’s he going to do?” Eventually, we got talking, and he said: “I’d like to come here with my co-worker.” He wrote his name on a piece of card before he left. It was Glenn Scott Wright from Victoria Miro gallery, and I was like: “Oh, fuck! Victoria is coming!”
RM: In 2011, you moved here, to the old sausage factory. Looking around, we are surrounded by objects and imagery that feature in the paintings on show at White Cube. Your dogs, the enormous champagne glasses you drink from, and, of course, the bonsai trees.
RS: Since you have been to this place, Miss, does it not all make sense? Because the works come from this studio. Perhaps you’ll find it ridiculous, but I’m obsessed with mortality. Each and every single day for me is a present, because I was supposed to be dead. In 2005, I had three types of cancer, and I promised myself that, if I survived, I would dedicate my life to plants and paintings.
I did not ever imagine that I would have the good fortune and responsibility of looking after these bonsai trees in my lifetime. No one ever owns bonsais. The person who trained this tree, for example, has been dead for 160 years. The whole idea is that you look after them and, before you die, you hand them over to someone who is going to look after them for their lifetime. So it’s a responsibility. You can’t not pay attention when you’re doing bonsais. You have to listen to them, understand them. Every evening – and I’m not mad, Miss – they expect me, because it is time for them to be pampered, watered, and they love to be fussed over. It takes about three and a half hours to water these damned things every day. When it’s all done and I have my cup of tea and a cigarette, it is incredible because they are so happy. It’s so detached from the harsh reality of the outside world.
RM: You have made a complete world in here, a studio, home and garden combined that is very separate from the busy street outside.
RS: People tend to make a big deal of my “house arrest”. I do not leave this place. There’s so much to do and, besides, it’s traumatising out there, my darling. And I think I've had enough trauma in my life, and I'm lucky that I can live in silence with my plants. Nothing really happens here. The biggest crisis is: “Oh, we need to work more on plants; a fish has eaten another fish …”
RM: In the background of a number of the paintings in Self Portraits are vignettes of London. The Shard, which is central to the view from your balcony, makes an appearance cloaked in rainbow-hued light, and also in steely gray.
RS: For almost two and half years, I shut myself in the studio, and the Shard became a metaphor for the outside world. When I moved here it was less than half built, and I watched it going up. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure about it, but it does very beautifully reflect the sky. And at certain times of the day, the various sides reflect the light, and sometimes you have three different kinds of light on three of the large panels, and it looks rather lovely.
I remember thinking when I came to Britain that the sky, the clouds, never stop moving. Coming from the Himalayas, I’d never seen clouds like that, because the mountains are so huge that they block them. The clouds come slowly, and then they stay, so I spent days looking at the sky.
RM: Did being so ill impact on the type of paintings you were making?
RS: The Absence of God series was made when I was really ill, and I did those drawings in my bed at St Thomas’ hospital. That whole series is full of blood, syringes, injections. Will you believe it if I tell you I have never in my life been on holiday? I don’t know what “holiday” is. I’ve been in this concrete studio situation for 19 years. But post-cancer, I realised I wanted each and every frame to be beautiful and healing. Don’t you think this place is calm? And have you noticed something? Time doesn’t exist here. I don’t wear a watch. I don’t do time. It’s very working class, time.
I’m 42 now, and a lot of people will tell you, your early 40s are the best time in your life. I’m so comfortable in my skin, and I don't really give a shit about the annoying things that people say. You can only imagine, in Kashmir, in a Muslim place, to be gay. Oh my god …
RM: Were you openly gay then?
RS: Sweets, my voice never broke, and I was effeminate all my life. I also grew up with women, with my female cousins, and there were quite a lot of them. And, Miss, I’m not joking, I give the best cunnilingus in the whole mother-fucking world. I really do. Because when you look at the workings of a vagina, it’s very much like operating a machine. It’s like flying a plane. Or perhaps a submarine is a better metaphor.
RM: I’m not sure that I have ever seen an exhibition of contemporary art as overtly opulent as those in Self Portraits. There are showers of golden coins, champagne bottles and snow leopards. As well as this, the works are rammed with references to Renaissance painters. Your work seems detached from contemporary mores. Are there artists working today with whom you feel an affinity?
RS: I really don’t give a fuck about the so-called contemporary art world. Even at St Martins, painting was supposed to be out of fashion. It was all about conceptual art and film. And then there is skill, which you’re supposed to shy away from, because skill is horrible. You're not supposed to be skilful!
RM: “Kitsch” is a word that critics often used when describing your work. Is it a quality you are happy to embrace?
RS: It is very easy to classify something and put it in a box so you don’t have to think about it. It boils down to the fact that there are people who have different aesthetic experiences. I come from a very different culture. How many artists do you know that come from Kashmir? My work has a diasporic sense, of leaving but also carrying the memory of a culture. It is an amalgamation, a hybrid, a cocktail. The fabulous thing about it is, the more you look, the more it will reward you. But you have to have the psychological state to accept what you see and engage with it.
When a western art critic reads my work, they have absolutely no clue of the culture I grew up in, the aesthetic sense, the spiritual sense, the mentality. They don't have access to any of those things, and so what’s easiest is to call it decorative, call it kitsch, call it over the top. I’ve dedicated my damn life to this thing.
RM: The painting Self Portrait in the Studio at Peckham (After Steenwyck the Younger) II (2014-15) includes the crown jewels, studded in Swarovski crystals …
RS: I ask you, is that tree kitsch? [Shaw points to an elaborately leafed bonsai]. When this is in flower it looks Barbie, covered in pink. And it’s nature! The Sistine Chapel is kitsch, rococo is kitsch. So, what is not kitsch?
What is the difference between the Queen in her stately robes and a transvestite in Soho or San Francisco? I always say, whose perspective is it? Everyone has different readings, based on where you were brought up, where you were educated, what you were exposed to. Next to the crown jewels in that painting is my version of Tsar Nicholas’s Fabergé egg. On Tsar Nicholas’s egg there are images of the Tsar, his wife, the Tsarina, and their son. Whereas my Fabergé egg has the lovely boys and me.
RM: I get the impression that every aspect of your painting – every piece of fruit, or marble archway – has been selected for a specific symbolic purpose. In Self Portraits, there are skeletons everywhere, crawling across floors and dangling from the architecture. What is their significance?
RS: Do you have a boyfriend?
RM: I have a wife.
RS: Do you have a child?
RS: I find people are so inconsiderate. We don’t need to reproduce. I tell you, and I mean it. If a quarter of the human population decides to kill themselves, I shall be the first one to go. We are killing the planet! The hanging skeletons are a perfect memento mori. How fascinating that we are here now, but we’ll be nothing. This is the absolute nucleus of the philosophies that came from the Vedas and the Indus Valley civilisation: that you are aware that this is a dream within a dream, and so the best thing you can do is look at the positives and try to do your best.
RM: You are also currently exhibiting paintings based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne. How did this come about?
RS: I absolutely adore opera, and it just felt like the natural thing to do. Glyndebourne is very lovely. Who would ever imagine in a million years – and it could only happen in England – that you have one of the greatest opera houses in the world tucked away in the middle of nowhere? And all the people who go there, they take it so seriously! It’s the middle of the day, and everyone is wearing black tie and cocktail dresses, with their little baskets next to the lake with the lilies. I hope that never changes.
RM: What is that you like about that scene?
RS: Respect for the past. It’s also reaffirmation that the whole world hasn’t turned into one of Kim Kardashian’s butt cheeks. It’s not about selfies and Instagram and social media. It’s very easy to be cynical about everything, my dear, and cut everything down, but to be able preserve these old traditions is very lovely.
RM: One of the works on show at Glyndebourne is a painting titled Self-Portrait as Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Bottom, with blue arms and a donkey’s head, is reclining in a kimono drinking an enormous glass of champagne. Why did you decide to cast yourself in this role?
RS: I always felt like Bottom. I always did. All my life, I thought people were laughing with me. But, Miss, I realise they were laughing at me. But never mind.