Coming out on top

A self-taught Thai artist bags first prize at the global BP Portrait Award

Jiab Prachakul. (Photo by Guillaume Bouzige)

Raw talent and practice led to Jiab Prachakul winning the top prize at the BP Portrait Award. However, it was an artistic feat she didn't expect to accomplish given that she has no formal training in art.

"This is an evocative portrait of a fleeting moment in time, giving us a glimpse into someone else's life that is beautiful, mysterious and alive. It's loosely painted and bold composition makes clever use of contrasting shapes."

This comment was made by the judging panel of Jiab's painting Night Talk. It depicts two close friends of Jiab -- a Korean designer Jeonga Choi and a Japanese music composer Makoto Sakamoto -- sitting next to each other in a Berlin bar. An annual competition, the BP Portrait Award, which was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is known as one of the world's most prestigious art competitions. This year, there were 1,981 entries from 69 countries.

Born in Nakhon Phanom in 1979, Jiab graduated from Thammasat University in filmography and worked as a casting director at an advertising production company. In 2007, Jiab moved to London. After viewing a retrospective of prints by David Hockney at the UK's National Portrait Gallery, she suddenly realised that she wanted to be an artist. While working hard as a self-taught artist, she moved to Berlin where she set up her own design brand "Jiab" and began selling her paintings at a local flea market. Currently, Jiab is a full-time contemporary figurative artist who lives in Lyon, France.

Via the Jitsi Meet application, Jiab told Life about her award-winning painting and her journey as an artist.

Yasuko by Jiab Prachakul. (Photos by Jiab Prachakul)

What was your inspiration for Night Talk?

It was difficult to make new friends when I was 40 years old and moved to Lyon. People in Lyon are different from those in Berlin. I didn't meet people who worked in the art field. I went out to meet many people, but no one clicked with me. It was exhausting. When I started to paint Night Talk, I thought about who I was and who my friends were. I looked back to my close friends in Berlin and looked at myself who has moved around to many places. I wanted to tell what my identity was. I chose these two friends because they are from Asia. We don't even speak the same language but we can communicate and understand one another. We understand how the lives of artists are and this was a memorable moment that I missed and wanted to share. I also wanted to depict Asian people through art. There is little in terms of figurative art or portraits that show Asian people living abroad like the way I see them. Asian expats build up ourselves, our societies and our identities in a way that's different from how we do in our homelands. Wherever we are, we still have our own identities.

What was on your mind when you heard that you were the winner of the BP Portrait Award?

I was overjoyed. The award was unexpected as I have no formal art education and I am a freelance artist. Winning the award is huge and this spotlight is massive. People around the world now look at me and my works through which I have always tried to communicate. Before receiving the award, I was always trying to prove myself but after this, I feel more relaxed.

A detail of Night Talk.

Why did you suddenly want to be an artist after viewing Hockney's retrospective?

When I stepped into the first room of the retrospective, his drawings were like mine when I was a child and I thought I had artistic skills. However, in the second room, his incredible artworks were totally different from the previous ones and that made me think it was impossible to paint like him. I realised if I didn't practise, my art skills won't go anywhere. Professional artists practise every day until people recognise them.

Why did you focus on portraits particularly?

I'm interested in people, their feelings and my feeling. With a portrait, I can convey my feeling through it. It is my way of communicating with other people. Night Talk is a portrait of my friends whose identity I connect to. Their portrait presents my perspective about lives -- it is my viewpoint, the way I like to dress, and my lifestyle. Most of my works are about putting across my feelings to people and portraying models who share similarity with me in lifestyle, background, taste in dress, artistic taste and interests.

How do you develop your artworks?

Some people have said that oil paintings are dead because they have been used since the Renaissance period. However, I make art by having eye-opening experiences and seeing what can communicate with people the most. I view all kinds of arts including installation art, performance art and conceptual art. If I keep up with the newest trends, I can move forward with it. I don't take a break at all. When it comes to my artwork, my ideas connect with the trends of this era. Fortunately, we are in the digital age now and we don't have to go out to galleries or museums every day as we can simply search for inspiration through the internet.

Jiab's award-winning painting, Night Talk.

As an Asian artist, is it difficult to grow in the art industry in Europe?

It is difficult in terms of entering art society, especially as an Asian artist who neither has an art degree nor any professors to introduce me to an institute. However, among art lovers, it is easy. We all are human and we all want to communicate and understand one another. If we speak about something that everyone, every nation and every country can relate to, it doesn't matter where we come from because we can reach anyone.

What are the differences between art exhibitions in Bangkok, London, Berlin and Lyon?

They are totally different. People who come to art exhibitions are different in many ways. In Bangkok, the visitors were my friends and people who knew me and I had a lot of support. In London, artists can let artworks speak for themselves. However, in Berlin, I remember it was difficult to attract visitors to come to my exhibition because there were a lot of retrospectives. People who came to our exhibitions were people who really supported our works and we had to stay in touch with them. In Lyon, I knew no one. At one of my exhibitions located in the suburbs, only one visitor showed up and bought a painting after looking at it for 15 minutes.

What is your advice for artists who want to succeed like you?

First, be honest to yourself. You must speak to yourself and ask what your identity is. Why do you want to work on this artwork? Don't do any work to please other people. Next, don't just think about it. Work on it and finish it. Your main focus shouldn't be on the money. Focus on your work and it will lead you to income.