Scotland’s public art collection received its very first Raqib Shaw artwork in 2018 after the artist kindly gifted a painting to the National Galleries of Scotland. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Chief Curator Patrick Elliott discusses the acquisition, the artist and his show Raqib Shaw: Reinventing the Old Masters.
Shaw was born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and grew up in Kashmir. He moved to London in 1998, to study at St Martin’s School of Art. Unable to afford artist’s oil paints (he recalls that a tube of cobalt blue cost £85 even 20 years ago: the equivalent of his food bill for three weeks), he bought cans of industrial enamel paint at a hardware store. He developed a unique technique, drawing outlines with a thick, gold-liner paint, which creates an intricate web of raised lines. He then drips enamel paint into each tiny ‘well’, and manoeuvres the paint with a needle-sharp porcupine quill, or sometimes a pin.
Self-Portrait with Fireflies and Faces shows the artist kneeling, cradling his beloved dog under one arm and holding a bird cage in his outstretched hand. A cloud of fireflies has emerged from the cage’s open door; the golden flies now mingle with an amazing array of disembodied self-portrait heads. It’s loosely based on a small painting in the National Gallery in London: The Massacre of the Innocents by Gerolamo Mocetto, a fairly obscure sixteenth-century Venetian artist. Mocetto’s painting shows Herod’s soldiers in the process of executing naked babies. Shaw has inserted himself in place of the principal soldier who was kneeling in the foreground, stabbing a baby in the head. It’s a study for a larger painting called Self-Portrait with Fireflies at the Oracle of Ridicule and Truth (after Gerolamo Mocetto). The fireflies are a memory from Shaw’s youth. He told us that ‘they symbolise hope and illumination that appears as if by magic in the middle of darkness.’
The self-portrait heads are a bit more complicated. Shaw is charming and talkative, and he laughs and jokes a lot, but as with many comedians, you sense that the humour is a kind of mask or shield. ‘Anxiety’ is a word he often uses. He once commented: “I think my paintings are born out of anxiety; the reason I started painting was because interaction with people, with society, caused me a lot of anxiety. I needed a space to deal with this anxiety. The paintings are based on channelling that anxiety, on concentrating on something. It is very much like those Shamanic practices where people beat the drums so that they go on to another reality, another space. And that is why you see in my work: this constant obsession with detail, this constant craziness”. Here, then, we find hope laced with fear, but also redemption through the extraordinary beauty of his art.