Raqib Shaw | A Summer Among the Narcissi
Raqib Shaw | A Summer Among the Narcissi
28 May – 1 August 2021
There is a dignity to this; there is a formality - The flowers vivid as bandages, and the man mending. They bow and stand: they suffer such attacks!
White Cube is pleased to present A Summer Among the Narcissi, an online exhibition of works on paper by Raqib Shaw, 28 May – 1 August 2021. Featuring a new series of circular, enamel and pencil drawings, the presentation is titled after one of Shaw’s favourite poems, Among the Narcissi by Sylvia Plath (first published 1963), which muses on man’s relationship to nature and its ability to heal and nurture.
During the national lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Shaw set out to build an alpine rockery at his South London studio based on his childhood memories of the flora and fauna in the Karakoram mountains of Kashmir. After experimenting with its scenery and scale, this mountainous landscape-in-miniature became the subject for Shaw’s new group of paintings and drawings, which focus on the artist as a lone protagonist, set within allegorical, landscape scenes.
As anyone who has visited his studio – a slice of Kashmiri garden heaven in Peckham – knows, working with him is quite unlike any other experience.
Shaw chose a circular format for his drawings in order to evoke a portal – not simply into the fantastical subject matter they revealed, but also his own inner thoughts and vivid imagination. Drawing on both reality and fantasy, and his own conscious and subconscious wishes and desires, Shaw’s work synthesises many visual references into a unique, hybrid world – one that is constantly expanding and changing.
In Nurturing Hope: After Tintoretto’s Adoration of the Shepherds, the protagonist is depicted in a garden setting, amid a dazzling display of rhododendrons bordering a placid lake, whose surface is dotted with water-lilies.
Shaw incorporates images taken from his life into his subject matter, often drawing on recent events and recording these in meticulous detail, or using visual metaphors. With mesmerising precision and a skilful draftsmanship Shaw creates a poetic and romantic world; a theatre whose significant moments are highlighted and staged with moods that deeply connect with his own psychological state of mind at the time of their making. This is particularly evident in his group of circular self-portraits, which are presented chronologically and can be read as a linear narrative, identifying points along the artist's life.
Edgy Spring, 2020
The narrative of the artist’s life can be seen to begin with the work Edgy Spring, in which Shaw depicts himself tending to his narcissi; sitting precariously, legs dangling on the edge of his rockery – here re-imagined as a huge cliff – and paying little attention to the ravine below.
Despite the enticing clusters of bright flora seen in the depths of the ravine, the work imparts a sense of foreboding, as if depicting the moment before a fall, or alluding to some kind of imminent change in his current existence.
Sacred Summer, 2020
The solemnity of Edgy Spring is countered by the work Sacred Summer in which the artist-as-gardener appears rewarded for his toils by a rich, luxuriant border of orange and red flowers, which curves along the bottom of the image, nestled within a rocky terrain. Kneeling next to his faithful companion – a small dog, half-turned towards the viewer – the artist offers a trowel of soil to the heavens in a gesture of gratitude for nature’s bounty.
The workingman’s clothes of Sacred Summer have been replaced in Harvest Moon by an elaborate kimono, worn by the melancholic artist as he cradles his dog and reads a large book – his first childhood illustrated story – under a pale, full moon. Portrayed deep in thought, the work draws on Shaw’s early memories and in particular, the loss of one of his closest family members.
In these self-portraits, I feature dressed in my Uchikake Kimono with my dogs – […] when composing new works, I stage photo-shoots in which I appear adorned in my Kimono or a Jamawar shawl and surrounded by various artefacts and objects from flowers and fruit to Japanese parasols, tulwar swords, sitting on Renaissance Savonarola chairs – the list is endless. Each item is carefully and strategically placed and I am constantly toying with symbolism…
– Raqib Shaw
My work has a diasporic sense, of leaving but also carrying the memory of a culture. It is an amalgamation, a hybrid, a cocktail.
Only Hope shows the artist again dressed in an elaborate kimono, but this time taking refuge inside an old woodshed, a reference to the figure of the Virgin Mary in Tintoretto’s The Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-81).
Only Hope, 2020
Rather than nursing a Christ child, however, here the protagonist sits on a bed of straw and waters his narcissi using a long, elegant, bronze watering can; an act undertaken with intense concentration yet laden with pathos.
Shaw has remarked that while his fantastical imagery is idiosyncratic, it can be considered a reflection on the human condition in general and the individual’s sometimes painful journey through life.
Blossom Bleeder, 2020
Star Gazer, 2020
The sense of something sinister, even diseased, within natural beauty, creeping up and overwhelming us, gives potent impact to [...] the hybrid aquatic/animal/human forms lurking in toxic/gorgeous settings evoked by Raqib Shaw.
– Jackie Wullschläger, 2020
Willow Psycho, 2020
‘[...] relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and [...] man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature.’
– Giorgio Agamben, 2004
In Final Submersion, the artist-as-gardener is depicted submerging his own Jamawar shawl (a symbol of family and homeland that has appeared in many of Shaw’s paintings) in a flowing stream as an act of catharsis. Watching the pattern of the shawl dissipate and migrate into the water, the artist seems to be bidding farewell to the pain of his past.
We certainly become what we think, and steering towards positivity by embracing beauty in art and nature is the only way forward for me. Ultimately, my paintings celebrate the resilience of man, the ability to transform sorrow into beauty and finally, the acceptance of inevitable change that feeds the cycle of life itself.
– Raqib Shaw
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