In June, the MFAH presents the nationally touring exhibition “Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West”

Luminous Paintings by Kolkata-born, London-based artist Raqib Shaw Merge Fable, History, and Autobiography

HOUSTON—April 3, 2024—The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will present the nationally touring Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West, featuring intricate paintings of dream-like, mysterious realms that blend Eastern and Western influences. Organized by the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it will be on view at the MFAH from June 9 through September 2, 2024.

Raqib Shaw was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, in 1974, and spent most of his childhood in the beautiful Valley of Kashmir—a long-disputed territory that has been marked by sectarian strife that peaked in the 1990s and continues today. Shaw relocated to New Delhi in 1992 and was immersed in his family’s business of selling jewelry, textiles, and carpets. On a trip to London in 1993, he fell in love with the old masters’ paintings at the National Gallery; he eventually moved to the city in 1998 to study art and has lived there ever since. Throughout his career as an artist, Shaw has created mesmerizing images, in which references to Western art history are seamlessly combined with Asian ornamental aesthetics and philosophical traditions.

“Raqib Shaw’s universe is revealed through the memory of childhood experience in the extraordinarily beautiful Valley of Kashmir, the tragic history of modern Kashmir, and his knowledge and appreciation of the history of art both Western and the Eastern,” commented Gary Tinterow, Director and Margaret Alkek Williams Chair at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “We are pleased to partner with the Frist Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to bring Shaw’s mysterious paintings to Houston.” 

Reflecting these intertwined histories, Shaw took the exhibition’s title from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West,” often cited for the line “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Yet, as exhibition curator Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy, lecturer on the history of art at the University of Bristol, explains, “Raqib Shaw is inspired by the next lines of Kipling’s ballad, which propose the opposite: when like-minded souls meet ‘there is neither East nor West’ even if ‘they come from the ends of the earth!’ Shaw creates a resounding affirmation that this ‘meeting’ can be fused in art with remarkable results.”

Subverting geographical boundaries, Shaw blurs the lines between art and ornament—Japanese aesthetics, Mughal artifacts, Islamic textiles, and Indo-Persian architecture converge with citations from Renaissance masters. The artist paints with porcupine quills and fine needles to render the precise details of delicate flowers or distant mountains, which are outlined in embossed gold. Jewels, glitter, and semiprecious stones further enhance the sublime opulence of the scenes, beguiling viewers through the iridescent shimmer of their surfaces, even as they sense the sadness that lurks beneath the glamour. Upon closer examination, conflict is present in almost every painting, evoking Kashmir’s turbulent history.

The artist is the protagonist throughout the exhibition. In Self-Portrait in the Study at Peckham (After Vincenzo Catena) Kashmir version, Shaw presents himself at a Renaissance scholar’s table in conscious homage to the Venetian master’s portrayal of St. Jerome in his Study (c. 1510, National Gallery, London). While Catena’s study is spare and uncluttered, Shaw is surrounded by the material pleasures that Saint Jerome was supposed to have renounced. He is richly dressed in a gold-threaded kimono, and his study features a Kashmiri carpet, ornately worked metalware, and bowls of ripe fruit. But close looking reveals a dark side. Is that a skeleton army emerging from the woodwork? Are there worms in the pomegranates? Are those rats making a hearty meal on the priceless carpet? Looking through the windows, a peaceful view of the Himalayas and Kashmir’s Dal Lake is offset by a glimpse of the Sufi Dastageer Sahib shrine in flames. Shaw’s painting is a cautionary tale about the fragility of life and the certainty of loss, as well as his own exilic existence.

Ode to the Country without a Post Office contains a similar juxtaposition of the tranquil and the horrific. Sitting in a palatial balcony in the foreground is a kimono-clad Shaw, gazing into an opening in the floor, from which hundreds of fireflies are emerging. Beyond this enchanting scene, however, fire and chaos rage in the town below the balcony.

Shaw views his paintings as visual diaries, a way of recording, processing, and even escaping from what is happening in his own life and in the world around him. “It’s my way of dealing with this world, it’s my way of escaping into another world,” Shaw explained in a video interview at the Frist. “I am a spectator, yet at the same time, I am a player.”

Informed by his personal experiences, Shaw’s works can conjure paradoxical feelings: remorse over Kashmir as “a trampled Eden, a Paradise Lost,” as Jumabhoy writes, but also hope for a healed land of converging cultures, ideas, and beliefs. Yet, Shaw frequently incorporates elements of humor and self-deprecation. The exhibition’s cornerstone work, Retrospective 2002–2022, includes 60 miniaturized versions of Shaw’s own paintings and sculptures in a reworking of the famous suite of three paintings from the 1750s by Giovanni Paolo Panini, each titled Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome. Shaw stands atop a stack of packing crates marked “Fragile,” wearing a Venetian carnival mask and triumphantly holding a toilet plunger over his head like a wand, as if he has conjured the magnificent array surrounding him through magical means. Placing himself in conversation with the old masters, Shaw acknowledges the absurdity and gravity of an artist attempting to grapple with the beauty and pain of existence.

“Raqib Shaw’s paintings are at once seductive and disturbing. The artist deftly weaves together not only East and West, but beauty and conflict, hope and longing, in his lush and enticing landscapes and interiors,” adds Alison de Lima Greene, the Isabel Brown Wilson curator, modern and contemporary art, at the MFAH, and organizing curator for the show’s presentation in Houston. “Once seen, they are never forgotten.”

Organization and Funding
The exhibition is organized by the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

In Houston, generous support is provided by:
Pace Gallery

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Spanning 14 acres in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the Fayez S. Sarofim Campus of the MFAH comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building, and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art, with its Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

Media Contact
Melanie Fahey, Senior Publicist | 713.800.5345