Opening at the MFAH June 9: “Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West”

Luminous Paintings by Kolkata-Born, London-Based Artist Raqib Shaw Merge Fable, History, and Autobiography

HOUSTON—June 6, 2024—The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will present the nationally touring Raqib Shaw: Ballads of East and West, featuring intricate paintings of dreamlike realms that deftly unite Eastern and Western artistic traditions. Organized by the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 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 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 Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery; he eventually moved to the city in 1998 to study art and has lived there ever since.

The exhibition surveys over a decade of Shaw’s mature career, from 2009 to 2023, ranging from intimate paintings to monumental compositions that took up to seven years to complete. Reflecting his own intertwined histories, Shaw took inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s 1889 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.” Kipling, the so-called Poet of the British Empire, ultimately concludes the opposite, as he honors the friendship that forms between a British colonial officer and an Afghan warrior. More than a century later, Shaw devised his own ballads, commenting: “I always felt that in a strange way I am the reversal of Kipling, the ‘Colonizee’ and the Colonized exchanging places and perspectives.”

“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.”

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 art. Using high-gloss enamel paints, Shaw employs 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.

Shaw is the protagonist throughout the exhibition as he 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. “I am a spectator, yet at the same time, I am a player.”

Guest curator Zehra Jumabhoy has observed further: “In Shaw’s work the concept of the real is always shifting, challenging viewers as they navigate layers of meaning.” Informed by his personal experiences, Shaw conjures up a wide range of 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. Shaw incorporates elements of humor and self-deprecation as well. The exhibition’s cornerstone work, Retrospective 2002–2022, includes 60 miniaturized versions of Shaw’s own paintings and sculptures in a reworking of Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome, 1757. 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 history, Shaw acknowledges the absurdity and gravity of an artist attempting to grapple with the beauty and pain of existence.

“We are fortunate to be able to introduce two of the artist’s newest tapestries to our presentation,” states Alison de Lima Greene, Isabel Brown Wilson curator, modern and contemporary art, at the MFAH, and organizing curator with Katie O’Hara, curatorial associate, for the show’s presentation in Houston. “Addressing the global threat posed by climate change, Shaw deftly weaves together not only East and West, but beauty and conflict, hope and longing.”

Organization and Funding
This 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
White Cube

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