A few weeks after winning the National Portrait Gallery’s 2020 BP Award for her outstanding piece Night Talk, Jiab Prachackul spoke to Candid Orange about her painting process, Asian identity in portraiture, and Berlin’s all-black uniform.
The first thing that strikes you about Jiab Prachakul is — for want of a better word — her passion. As cliché as it may seem to ascribe such a noun to a self-taught portraitist, her deep-rooted connection to the art world is palpable even over a WhatsApp call hounded by poor Wifi connection.
When Jiab submitted Night Talk to the National Portrait Gallery selection panel, she was expecting very little. Although her friends, family and fiancé believed she could win, she was significantly less sure; to even be shortlisted came as a surprise.
“They believed in me too much,” she laughs. “I didn’t want to disappoint people!”
Indeed, none of her supporters would be disappointed. On May 6th, the panel announced that her portrait of two close friends sitting in a bar in Berlin had been awarded first prize. With it came a commissioned painting for the Gallery worth £7,000, as well as £35,000 in prize money. But more importantly, the pride of having your artwork hung in the halls that have been graced by the likes of Hockney, Moore and Freud; her biggest inspirations.
Personal identity behind Night Talk
Jiab, hailing from Thailand, has lived across Europe for over a decade. Born in 1979 in Nakhon Phanom, she studied filmography before working as a casting director at a Bangkok production company.
In 2006, she moved to London, where she had the “instant realisation” that she wanted to be an artist after visiting a David Hockney retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. Moving to Berlin, she began selling small paintings at a local flea market, having pursued the entirely self-taught path toward becoming a credible artist.
For Jiab, Night Talk is inherently personal. Choosing two of her closest friends to paint, she wanted to bring a new form of identity into portraiture that is lacking.
“This image of the Asian artist is something which has not been presented in portraiture before,” she said. “Asian figures in art are a lot more centred on exoticism and authenticism, referring back to the traditional Asian subject. I want to see something like Kerry James Marshall has done — it’s only when you see [our figures] everywhere that you get used to our identity.”
Having now lived in Lyon for some years, a trip to Berlin last year bore fruit of the exact experience and moment she wished to depict: friends, sitting in a bar, each living miles away from their birthplace. Night Talk portrays her close friends Jeonga Choi, a designer from Korea, and Makoto Sakamoto, a music composer from Japan.
There is not a moment’s pause when asked why she chose to paint the pair.
“Jeonga and Makoto are like family to me,” she admits warmly. “We are all outsiders, Asian artists living abroad, and their deep friendship has offered me a ground on where I can stand and embrace my own identity. I looked at friends around me who reflect my identity and who present their identity as an Asian artist who lives in Europe. Wherever we go in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, we increasingly see more and more of us. Yet those kinds of paintings are not captured.”
It is why in Night Talk, each detail is so intimately centred around the reality of these artists’ lives in Berlin, including small touches that both residents and visitors to the city know all too well — from the all-black outfits to the tobacco pouch hidden behind the flowers in the centre of the portrait. We ask ourselves, what have these artists been creating to look so tired? Where are they going next, Jeonga looking down in a motion that suggests she is readying herself to leave?
Night Talk’s own identity
The award-winning portrait depicts Jeonga and Makoto sitting at a low table, looking pensive, if not tired. Given the composition and subject matter, it is clear her take on impressionism is so heavily influenced by the originals of the 19th century.
Much like Degas’ ballerinas, Jiab is after all depicting the 21st-century artist. Will Gompertz went as far to write that “Night Talk could be a work of Parisian Impressionism circa 1874 if it weren’t for the acrylic paint and the Berlin setting.”
This is where we return to one of Jiab’s most significant influences, in both technique and inspiration: Kerry James Marshall. An American artist whose work centres on Black identity and form, his depiction of Black bodies has previously distinguished him as the world’s most influential artist in an annual contemporary power list.
“Marshall’s message of black identity is really strong,” she says. “His work is beautiful because all the boundaries of figure disappear; it becomes more about message. When I looked at his works and watched his MCA talk at the Chicago Museum, I was just so inspired. He talks about finding your own subject matter. I was so touched by his body of work that I started to think about my own identity.”
For Jiab, it is the fact that Marshall not only focuses on portraiture but also captures a place and time, which makes him so inspiring. She expertly recreated this intimate setting, so much so that the NPG panel described her painting as “an evocative portrait of a fleeting moment in time.”
“I wanted to go into a bit of an unknown place”
As well as Marshall, impressionist David Hockney has always been amongst Jiab’s biggest inspirations. Yet for Night Talk, its success has stemmed from Jiab’s desire to break out into her own style; something which has been made possible by her lack of formal training.
“I’ve always tried to find my own way to express [myself] while using Hockney as a guide. When I did Night Talk, I moved out of that rhythm and wanted to change something in my work. Previously I’ve used lots of bright colours, white and cream, which shows my Asian influence a bit, and my personality as well. In Night Talk, I wanted to go into a bit of an unknown place.”
With no framework or limits on her compositional technique, Jiab can paint from her own interest. It is not rare that this form of personal, unguided exploration leads to such successes — Van Gogh himself never was formally trained — but this artist can speak to herself and experiment while getting it so right.
Since the win, Jiab has revealed her latest painting Yasuko. It is an equally accomplished piece of impressionism depicting an Asian figure in a manner that, as she stresses, is still lacking from the art world.
So what comes next for Jiab Prachakul?
Her commission for the NPG will be yet another accomplishment for the artist, but the question remains: who she will paint? Although our winner has some ideas, she will have to wait to collaborate with the Gallery, who will ultimately have a say in the decision.
In the days and weeks following the win, she spoke with friends, her family, fans, journalists in a flurry of media attention surrounding her brilliant piece. Yet, after everything, the very people who believed she could win were the ones who have stuck around to guide her on her next step. Jiab is focusing on consolidating her style, taking a cautious step toward what is set to be a bright future.
To discover more about Jiab Prachakul, visit her website here.