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What lies beneath: Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul

Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul

Acrylic on canvas courtesy of the artist © Jiab Prachakul


Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul

Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul

Night Talk by Jiab Prachakul

Self-taught Thai artist Jiab Prachakul began selling her artwork at Berlin's Mauerpark Fleamarket in 2008. Earlier this month, Prachakul, from 1,981 entries, across 69 countries, was named the £35,000 overall winner of the BP Portrait Award 2020.

Born in 1979, growing up in small-town Nakhon Phanom, "with no source of culture", art wasn't encouraged. "My father preferred us to study something concrete. Art was seen as 'just a little thing', so I finished high school focusing on science". As did her siblings, but all of them took on an artistic career afterwards; two became singer/songwriters, another a camera operator.

Prachakul remembers feeling "quite fragile and telling myself at 17 that I don't have any talents. Things turned a bit in my family when I took Thammasat University entrance exams, switched to study filmography and philosophy and I'm really glad I did".

She worked as a casting director in Bangkok and when her company gave all employees a holiday abroad every year, Prachakul, in London, was excited by Tate Modern, the Saatchi Gallery. "I decided to move there a few years later".

A David Hockney retrospective at the NPG in 2006 was life-changing, a revelation. "Hockney's works developed tremendously. Talent is something you have to cherish, work really hard on, constantly, without stopping. I had an instant realisation that I wanted to become an artist."

Being self-taught, she found it "very natural". First she drew a series called Mutual Desperation, based on scenes from Aki Kaurismäki's films and Ron Mueck sculptures.

Moving to Berlin, in 2008, with its "reputation as a heaven for artists, a lot of space, chillax lifestyle, freedom. It wasn't easy in Berlin at all, especially as a portrait artist". But at Mauerpark she found "huge support and appreciation".

"And for the last 14 years, I explored every skill I thought I needed, from Lucian Freud's catalogue to the anatomy book Struttura Uomo."

This double portrait, Night Talk, features two friends, Korean designer Jeonga Choi and Japanese composer Makoto Sakamoto, in a Berlin bar, on an autumn evening.

Jeonga, "very arty, so stylish and precise"; Makoto, "reflective and sad, at a stage of sweet nostalgia, when you realise a lot of things in life are hard to accept but you also know that they happen for the better". And black? "I love to paint black. They both always wear black; it's the Berlin thing, the all-black-everything."

"That night I guided them to sit next to each other and let the unknown settle in. What appealed to me is the movie-like setting of the scene. It tells a story as well as keeping the memory of that moment. A good portrait is not only about producing something beautiful but communicating a message that will allow the viewer to feel or think further about themselves."

Prachakul likes to have "long conversations with my sitters, study their facial structure and expressions, sketch them, make notes and let that moment linger between us until it reappears again in the painting. I like to look for a sweet solitude in my sitters and something honest."

Prachakul now lives in Lyon, France. Quarantine or not, every day is simple: "admin, paint, lunch, social media, power nap, paint, yoga, dinner, watch a film with my fiance, Guillaume".

She misses Thailand for what she calls "the soave feelings", the gentleness, as in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films, whose portrait she's painting now.

"I miss simple moments, places you absorb in your heart, corners, trees that move in a soft breeze."

Viewing Night Talk, Prachakul hopes the viewer will be brought back to "their own moment and experiences when they shared an intimate time and personal topics with someone they feel safe with. I hope people will question who they are. What do they do in life?"

Website: jiabprachakul.com This year's NPG Portrait Exhibition can be viewed online at npg.org.uk

Sunday Independent