The way portraiture seduces us is unique. There is something that’s infinitely interesting about someone’s face. It draws you in and invites you to look without having your gaze returned. Most of the time, the qualities that draw you into a portrait aren’t necessarily the beauty of the piece, but rather the event that surrounds it.
“I have felt previously that doing a good portrait is not only about producing something beautiful. I would also like to communicate more to my audience, a message that will allow them to feel or think further about themself,” says Jiab Prachakul, a self-taught painter who now resides in Lyon, although born in Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand, a sleepy town where everything closes by eight in the evening.
“I grew up in a family that doesn’t give much importance to art,” the painter tells It’s Nice That. Before picking up the brush and moving back to London, Jiab worked as a casting agent for three years. “London as a city made me feel invisible. It forced me to ask myself who I was, what I could do and what I wanted to do.” It was on a visit to a David Hockney retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 that sparked a realisation in Jiab that she wanted to become an artist. After that visit, she returned with a set of coloured pencils and drew stills from Ari Kaurismäki’s Shadow in Paradise. 13 years later, her painting titled Night Talk won the portrait prize in that very gallery.
“At the time I started Night Talk, I was feeling lonely, excluded and alienated. It’s quite common when you move to a new place after building up a life somewhere else for a long time,” she says of the portrait. In the painting, Jiab depicts her friends Joenga and Makoto, two people that she developed close relationships with a shared identity of being a part of the Asian diaspora. Many of her paintings explore this theme of Asian identity that is transformed when interfacing with different languages of culture and selfhood.
Desperately wanting to create work that she can see herself in, this is a quality Jiab’s achieved by turning inwards towards her personal life and observing her friends closely. Keen for her pieces to evoke the feeling “that yes it’s alright to be this Asian diaspora and yes it’s alright if you feel sensitive,” Night Talk depicts her perspective of an evening spent with her two friends, urging viewers to see their own experiences in the painting. “I want it to address viewers in moments that they might have shared with their good friends, friends that they admire and adore. Friends that they would have a real conversation with, friends they would talk about things in particular and things in general,” she says.
In discussing her work, Jiab also pays tribute to Black artists that inspired her, from Amy Sherald to Jordan Casteel, finding that their statements on identity and the bold visual language they adopt inspired her to make work about living in reality. Night Talk itself was a technical challenge for Jiab, an acrylic painting that is much faster to dry than oil. “Usually in oil, I would complete faces and skin alla prima, but on Night Talk I added three layers on their faces and skin to arrive to the point where I felt that the painting did come to life,” she explains.
For many artists, including Jiab, portraiture is about the fleeting moment that becomes a reflection of the sitter, the environment and the painter. “When I start a painting, I always ask myself two questions: What message do I want to communicate? How can I bring that to the canvas?” she says. This is reflected in her portrait of Thai director Apichatpong in Conversation with Apichatpong. In it, the director sits between two red tables in a restaurant. The wine glasses on the table painted with careful precision as he gazes to his right, sitting in the centre of the canvas. The image exudes a sense of familiarity, and you can feel the fondness of the painter towards her sitter. “At the time, I was nearly unknown, with no gallery representation. He really gave me a sense of confidence and respect. I feel blessed by him.”
Currently Jiab is preparing for her first solo show since winning the portrait prize in January titled 14 Yrs with Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco. The exhibition will focus on the topic of this evolving Asian identity as individuals live through different realities. “I offer myself and those who are like me to count themselves in this, the paintings that give me a ground to stand on.”
Jiab Prachakul: Night Talk (Copyright © Jiab Prachakul, 2020)