Raqib Shaw’s current exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester explores the aesthetic relationship between the East and West. The artist talks to Apollo about his native Kashmir and how it inspired his love of detail
Your studio feels like a world of its own, with its beautiful gardens tucked away from the south London traffic. Why is the sense of enclosure so important to you?
I like to live in silence. Silence means you can focus and see things a bit better. Although everything comes at a price, here I can give my absolutely undivided attention to painting and everything that feeds it. What’s happened in the studio over the past 20 years is about dedication and devotion to a material, and exploring what can happen to that material. It’s like alchemy, seeing when the base metal will turn into gold, through severe questioning and persistence, allowing the material to develop and go where it wants to go. Your integrity towards your art is what matters – it has to be about the one-to-one relationship between the maker and the work.
And presumably that focus stimulates your love of detail?
Yes. Have you seen the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum [until 13 August]? He thought the older you get, the better your work becomes. I think that’s quite true of the practice here. I don’t understand it when artists say that they’re running out of ideas. Your life is your idea. Detail is like a shaman beating a drum; it’s something that takes you into a state of trance. My work is very detailed: the paintings are made with hammerite and porcupine quills. I used to use needles to manipulate enamel – you can’t use a brush as you need something very thin to mix things together. But then a lovely Texan friend of mine went to Botswana, and she collected the quills that a porcupine had left outside her tent, and told me they might work better than my needles. They’re longer and you have more control.
Your exhibition at the Whitworth also has a sense of containment, with your own works displayed alongside a selection of objects from the museum’s collection, all against the backdrop of a wallpaper that you have specially designed…
What’s really lovely about the Whitworth show is that it has an educational aspect. You enter this space – the wallpaper was [co-curator] Maria Balshaw’s idea – and take an aesthetic journey that includes objects and artefacts that relate directly to the work. Since my student days at Central Saint Martins, people have often attached this label of ‘decorative art’ to me, which I think is such a feeble reading. It doesn’t take into account my formative years. I grew up in Kashmir, where my influences were hangings, fabrics, carpets – that sort of thing. This exhibition places my work in that context. It gives a voice to Kashmir.
It’s not a solo presentation. We’re so used to a white gallery space, which is very sterile. This is the opposite scenario. If it works, when you walk in, the first thing that will hit you will be the variations of visual density as you adjust your eyes. When I was given a carte blanche by the Whitworth to choose anything from their collection, I decided to give visitors a bit of a history lesson – to make them think about how the mentality of, say, a Jamawar shawl-maker relates to that of a Japanese person making a kimono, and how these things relate to other objects like incense burners. The exhibition is about the mentality of makers.
Is is also a lesson in how to read your paintings?
It points in a certain direction. There are so many ways to read a work. It depends where people have come from, their education, their exposure to art. There’s no universal way of reading art, but what binds the objects in this exhibition, from the Tulwar sword to the Japanese prints, is the making of things.
The wallpaper that you’ve designed might make the gallery feel like a domestic space. Is art a way of life for you?
It is life. The boundary between art and life has to be blurred. My studio is not very domestic – it’s a temple dedicated to art and aesthetics. The people who work here just arrived and decided to stay. This is the closest one could get to a true atelier – I’m not joking – dedicated to art. And by the way, all the money from sales of the wallpaper are going to the Whitworth, which I think is rather lovely.
It’s notable how many objects in the Whitworth selection are from Japan or reflect Japanese influences. Have you travelled in Japan?
No. But my dearest friend and the love of my life is Japanese. She has a fabulous pre-war Japan kind of mentality. There is something about the Japanese mentality that the Western world can’t understand, and I have been lucky to have access to it. Did you know that my dog’s real name is not Minty? It’s Musashi, after Miyamoto Musashi, the Japanese swordsman who never lost a fight…
You’ve also selected Arts & Crafts works, by Walter Crane and others. Where did that interest come from?
There is an Arts & Crafts house at Liphook in Hampshire that belongs to my ex-family. I love the things there, things that I discovered when I came to England. You know, I really think that I got extremely lucky. I never wanted to leave Kashmir but there was no future there – the political situation is so difficult – and I thought long and hard about where I should live. I thought the fairest place would be England and when I came here, I felt that I was accepted.
More than 10 years ago, there was a show at the National Gallery called ‘Passion for Paint’, and they decided to have one of my paintings next to works by Gainsborough and Degas. I thought, what is going on, this is absolutely ridiculous – but this country gave me a voice.
Painting was unfashionable when you were at Saint Martins. Do you feel like that’s changed?
Yes. Those were the days of video art and performance. At Saint Martins, painters were an absolute minority. But I believe that we all have something to say, whether or not it’s significant, as long as we don’t give up the journey. I was not supposed to be here, but here I am – and I think the works are developing rather fabulously.
‘Raqib Shaw’ is at the Whitworth, Manchester, from 24 June– November.