Adorned Brutality

Raqib Shaw

Rachel Fenwick

Raqib Shaw, Manchester Art Gallery

5 February 2013–27 May 2013

Adorned Brutality

“They are really nice to look at but when you look closer, look, those monkeys are eating each other!” was my twelve year old cousin, her observations of Raqib Shaw’s exhibition, at Manchester Art Gallery. As her first visit to the gallery, she was in for quite a shock. We were exposed to the heavily adorned, painstakingly detailed and on closer inspection quite grotesque works of Raqib Shaw.

Walking into the huge space that is the top floor of Manchester Art Gallery I felt as though I had entered a minimalistic Indian temple. The space gave the paintings the grandeur they demanded. Walking around the room I began to close in on the paintings- wanting to see every detail. As a viewer you are drawn in, mesmerised by the beauty you see before you. You are charmed by the beauty of the crystals and the splendour they possess. You are aware that the paintings must possess a narrative but the immediate response is to praise Shaw on the detail of his drawing and give in to the magnificence of the Swarovski crystals.

Referring to the exhibition as a temple and remarking on its outstanding beauty hardly sounds grotesque I imagine you’re thinking. However underneath that glitz and glamour lies the deeply disturbing imagination of Raqib Shaw. Distracted by the beauty, I was a few paintings in before I first noticed the violence and terror that the paintings narrate. Shaw narrates a bizarrely mythical world where flying monkeys, horses with the heads of birds and baboons wearing military uniform exist. These creatures fire arrows, inflict torture and create terror on the other seemingly bizarre creatures. The crystals act as a distraction from this fantasy world of pain. In the materialistic society of our western culture it’s easy to put two and two together and see that Shaw is mocking our ever expanding greed. He is noting our ability to gloss over and adorn the dangerous world we live in.

Adorning is what Shaw does best. He didn’t stop at the exhibition room either. On entering Manchester Gallery I commented saying- “It’s like a Jungle out here!” I was yet to find out that Shaw had paid for the gallery to be decorated inside and out with an array of flowers, plant life and twisting branches. These plants took over the space, creating a decorative space in what is usually a bare entrance hall. Plants and flowers are draped around the banisters of the hall, and at the top of the staircase surrounded by foliage was the sculpture of Narcissus (White). The plant life became the distraction here; like that of the crystals in the paintings upstairs, the plants distracted you from the terror beneath. Underneath the foliage Narcissus portrayed the vicious creature of a swan with blood coming from its mouth. The swan had evidently used its beak to stab the creature in front of it, this being; which had a remarkable likeness to a human lead helpless- a shocking image I’m sure you’ll agree.

Upstairs in the gallery without the plants or the use of heavily bejewelled crystals was Shaw’s sculpture Adam. Without the distractions, the work had a greater impact on me.I saw his work for what it really was- very strange and vulgar. The sculpture portrayed two mythical creatures, one possessing the legs of a human and another had a head of a lobster. The sculpture alarmingly suggested behaviour of bestiality. It was at this point I began to think; without the decoration covering up the images of brutality that maybe Shaw is going a little too far. As my cousin said at the beginning it’s nice on the surface but look beneath and Raqib Shaw is portraying some rather gruesome imagery that isn’t for the faint hearted, and maybe it wasn’t the most appropriate exhibition to take my twelve year old cousin.