Raqib Shaw, After George Stubbs “Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians”, 2013, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 3/8".

Raqib Shaw, After George Stubbs “Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians”, 2013, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 3/8".

Raqib Shaw

Manchester Art Gallery

Raqib Shaw, After George Stubbs “Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians”, 2013, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 3/8".

“So quick bright things come to confusion,” says Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The perplexed lover’s comment came to mind at the recent show of thirty-eight (old and new) paintings, works on paper, and sculptures by Calcutta-born, London-based Raqib Shaw—the artist’s largest exhibition to date. Here, shimmering surfaces often concealed sinister truths. At first, the rhinestone-studded painting Blue Moonbeam Gatherer, 2010, might suggest romance. Enfolded in a velvety indigo night, fir trees caked in sugar-white frost glimmer like diamonds; silvery deer prance under glittery stars. The stage seems set for fairy-tale lovers—until we notice a tiny creature embedded in the wilderness. A blue-bodied man with the head of an animal is shackled to a precipice; groveling on his knees, he extends an ornate chalice to an indifferent moon.

In Shaw’s work, the bizarre is often entwined with the beautiful. At the Manchester Art Gallery, curling fronds and spring blooms (real ivy, ferns, and narcissi) were woven along the entrance and central staircase. Visitors might have expected to see fairies trailing along this fragrant flowery bower, but instead they encountered the sculpture Narcissus, 2009–11, ensconced in a grotto at the top of the stairs. Here, a large swan seems to be attacking a hunky man-beast (apparently meant to represent the artist himself) who has the head of a bat, ruby-red blood spurting from his chest. Gaping at the wrestling pair, we notice that the swan’s wings enfold the hybrid being, wrapping him in a violent embrace. Have we interrupted some sadomasochistic game?

In Greek myth, Narcissus was a beautiful boy who fell in love with his own watery reflection and committed suicide. In the fable, as often in Shaw’s show, love and loss are tête-à-tête. Because of the artist’s Kashmiri descent, Shaw’s work is usually read as allegorizing the region’s current troubles and idyllic past. Once considered “paradise on Earth,” Kashmir is now a no-man’s-land fought over by India and Pakistan. Shaw’s sparkly offerings recall man’s fall and expulsion from paradise. Think of the suggestively titled sculpture Adam, 2008, in which a lobster (encrusted with precious stones) mates with the miniature figure of a muscular, bird-headed man. Elsewhere, shiny, intricately textured paintings remind us of Kashmir’s history as a center of trade—a legacy with which Shaw himself must be intimately familiar, considering that his family were carpet makers and shawl traders. Hence, with their allusions to ancient enamel cloisonn. (the rainbow-winged birds in The Blind Butterfly Catcher, 2008), old-master paintings (the contorted creatures in lush vegetation that evoke Hieronymus Bosch), and jewel-bright Mogul miniatures, the paintings conjure Kashmir’s cosmopolitan background. Unfortunately, Shaw also seems to pander to orientalist stereotypes of the “exotic East”—that fabled land full of bizarre creatures, unbridled sexuality, and exploitable treasures.

Still, Shaw’s history-haunted oeuvre has never looked as subversive as in Manchester. Visitors discovering his whimsical beasties interspersed with paintings and artifacts from the gallery’s permanent collection of colonial-era artworks might have wondered: Where does fact end and freaky fairy tale begin? Opposite George Stubbs’s painting Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians, ca. 1765, was Shaw’s own bejeweled painting After George Stubbs “Cheetah and Stag with Two Indians”, 2013. While the first depicts a sleek feline tended by two “native” servants and gazing at a stag, Shaw’s version—in which a crowned monkey smokes a hookah on a (Kashmiri?) carpet and another (uniformed) simian rides a cheetah—unleashes the picture’s implicit violence. What separates a master from a monster? See, the Conqu'red Hero Comes.

Zehra Jumabhoy