(July 16, 2023) Indian artist Raqib Shaw’s fantastical landscapes draw inspiration from his homeland – Kashmir – invoking a sense of identity, memory and history. His stunning artwork is a befitting tribute to the land that exists only in his memory now. Kashmir was once his home but the political unrest pushed a young Raqib to relocate to Delhi in search of a better life. Now based in London, Raqib still finds himself thinking about his homeland and this yearning finds itself in the strokes of his brush that have put some beautiful artworks that the world cannot get enough of.
From being one of the few Indian artists to break records with a historic sale at Sotheby’s to having his art exhibited at some of the best galleries in the world, the 49-year-old painter has become a popular entity in the world of art. But this Global Indian had to fight bullies and his family to reach the top.
Vagabond – Kashmir to Delhi to London
Born in the City of Joy in 1974, Raqib grew up in a family of merchants in Kashmir. Being raised in a place called heaven on earth, he had a beautiful childhood, but with the political unrest gripping the Valley, a young Raqib started to witness the dreadful reality. “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,” the artist said in an interview.
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The unrest drove the Shaws to New Delhi in 1992, where the painter completed the last two years of his education. However, being a Muslim in a Hindu state school was quite difficult for this then 17-year-old who was bullied extensively. Amid the browbeating, Raqib found solace in his family business that ranged from interior design, architecture, jewellery to antiques and carpets. This brought him closer to the many beautiful ‘Made in India’ things.
While he loved everything Indian, he realised he couldn’t live in Delhi anymore and moved to London in 1993 with £850 in his suitcase. He was running three shops for his family, one in Piccadilly, one in MayFair and one on Bond Street. Raqib, who was just a sales boy and window dresser, had was clueless about life at that point.
Serendipity led to his calling
But a casual stroll to the National Gallery in London proved to be a turning point. His encounter with Holbein’s double portrait The Ambassadors (1533) prompted him to become an artist. “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,” he added. His first tryst with the painting left an indelible mark on Raqib, who was by then convinced that he wanted to spend his life in England as a practicing artist.
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In 1998, he enrolled at Central Saint Martins School of Art for his Bachelors in Arts but not without the the dismissive cries of his family, who eventually disowned him for pursuing something beyond the realm of their family business. “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 where I lived from 1998 to 2003,” he revealed.
Becoming an artist in the late 90s when the scales were titling towards video art and conceptual art was another laborious task for this then novice artist. However, he was keen to find his voice in art, and he did in the following years when he set the foundation for his technique of manipulating pools of industrial paint with a quill. His paintings suggested fantastical worlds full of intricate details and rich colour that were laden with satire and irony.
Journey to the top
Things took off for Raqib when on the last day of his MA show at St Martins, Glenn Scott Wright of Victoria Miro Gallery decided to stop by at his exhibition. This set the ball rolling for Shaw as he had his first solo exhibition titled The Garden of Earthly Delights in 2004 at Victoria Miro, one of London’s most iconic galleries. Such was the success of the exhibition that all of his 15 paintings were sold before the opening. The show marked the beginning of his international inning as his work found itself at the bienniales in Sydney and Gwangju, while Tate Modern and the Metropolitan Museum devoted exhibitions to him.
His work, which has graced the most iconic art galleries around the world, has always had a hint of Kashmiriyat in them as his paintings are details of imagined paradises. It’s the beauty of his homeland that has inspired most of his works. “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,” he told the magazine.
His popularity on the international circuit skyrocketed after his record breaking sale at Sotheby’s – his Garden of Earthly Delights III sold for £2.7 million, making it the most expensive artwork by an Indian artist ever sold at an auction. Since then he has become one of the biggest names in contemporary art scene whose work pushes the boundaries of socially accepted norms and is seen at the major art fairs around the world. Known to be the second most expensive artist, London-based Shaw work is a fusion of mythology, poetry, literature and history.
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