The Arts

Jiab Prachakul: Asian Diaspora and Identity


A journey of discovery for a Thai artist in Lyon

Born in Nakhon Pathom province, in a quiet village where everything sleeps at 8 pm, Jiab is a self-taught Thai portrait painter now living in Lyon, known for her contemporary pieces that she enjoys and identifies most with.

Jiab grew up in a family that did not give much importance to art, although she and her brother were good at art classes and have artistic talents. She even remembers learning how to draw faces from her brother. “I never thought I would end up living as an artist,” says Jiab. Jiab studied Filmography in Bangkok and worked as a casting agent at a production company for 3 years. She explains, “I took on the habit of observing people and looking for those with a special air around them. In every group of people, every job, every society, there is always someone with that special air around them.” 

Jiab spent a lot of browsing art books at foreign bookstores in Bangkok, always curious about everything. She was impressed by Egon Schiele’s work and amazed how expressive drawing can be. However, it wasn’t until her first holiday in Europe in the year of 2004 when Jiab became seriously interested in art. A visit to the Saatchi Gallery completely blew her away. “‘Dead dad’ by Ron Mueck gave me goosebumps. There was a Victorian room filled with petrol which you can walk right into the heart of the tank and just feel like you could be drawn in there. There were such pioneering works from Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Paula Rego and Jenny Saville of course! After that I couldn’t do without art.” 

After 3 years on the job, Jiab had the urge to discover more about life and what she really wanted to do, so she moved to London. There, she visited a David Hockney retrospective art exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “By the time I arrived at the second room of the exhibition, I had an instant realization I wanted to become an artist.” 

Jiab realized a lot of the pieces were similar to what she had been doing during her teens. But the further she explored the more she noticed how David Hockney’s works developed tremendously to a very high level. She explained, “Talent is something you have to cherish and work really hard on it constantly and without stopping.”

 

London somehow made Jiab feel invisible, she always questioned who she was, what she could do and what she wanted to do. Eventually, she found the answer. She then moved to Berlin where she lived for eight years before moving to Lyon, France, where she is now based as a full-time artist. The transitions she faced had a lot of influence on her work. “I started to question my identity, memories and senses that stay and those that got lost along the way.”

Most of Jiab’s work portray a fleeting moment and reflection through the inner emotions of the sitter themselves as well as objects and surroundings of the painting. She explained, “It develops itself around my own identity, how I grew up and see the world as a person.” When painting something, she always asks herself two questions - What message do I want to communicate? How can I bring that message to the canvas? She communicates to her audience in the same way we all build up our own identities - through our five senses.

“I once heard that in ancient times humans started to draw and make sculptures purely to communicate about something of that certain time. I think artwork nowadays is still serving that purpose -- to communicate certain topics about which we might all think and feel the same way even if we don’t come from the same background,” she said. 

Jiab strongly believes identity comes from our five basic senses which are touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, and this is shared by every individual. “Wherever we go we keep looking for those particular preferences that comfort us consciously or subconsciously. The more experiences we gain or share, the more complex those senses become.” 

Identity is similar. “A lot of the time it forms itself by involving itself in a place where we live, with people who we spend our time with.” Whether it is the choice of food we cook at home or the clothes we choose to wear. Jiab feels that when we don’t exist or live in that place anymore, part of the identity that had formed remains in us, while some other parts slowly fade away and we always look for traces of that identity because it's comforting to us. “At this point mixed identity could become a spoiled identity (as written and explained in ‘Stigma, Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity’ by Erving Goffman).”

Gradually a new identity is formed in new places within ourselves, and the more of the identity we adopt the more complex we become. Jiab feels it is important to take a closer look at herself, to unfold any complexion and embrace it with a sense of clarity, to manage her own mixed or spoiled identity. “Only by doing so can I move forward and become a little unit of a society’s mechanism.” 

 

Jiab draws inspiration from films by such diverse directors as Yazujiro Ozu, Aki Kaurismaki, Eric Rohmer and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. She has also been very much inspired by the work of Ron Mueck, Kerry James Marshall, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Agnes Martin, Wu Tsang, Boychild, to name but a few.

To let her artwork represent Asian identity is Jiab’s ultimate dream project, “To be able to reference the reality of Asian diaspora in a contemporary art ecosystem.”

Jiab’s upcoming exhibition will achieve just that. The exhibition – ‘14 Years’ at Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco from January 22 - March 5, 2021 – is all about looking closer at her Asian identity. She believes there are cliches around Asian identity but not much on how this identity really evolves over time and in different living realities. It’s how she sees Asians who remain in Europe. She explained, “They build a new identity which didn’t exist either in the place they live or even the place where they came from and I want to make this visible. It’s really how I deal with my mixed identity.” Although COVID might affect the opening of the exhibition in San Francisco, Jiab remains positive for the best outcome.

Her artwork ‘Night Talk’, which won the BP Portrait Award from The National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this year, is definitely one of her own favourite pieces. “It speaks to me, and is a reflection of my life.” The award has made a huge difference in her life, giving her the confidence to further explore her subject matters as well as to get involved in an art ecosystem with the support of curators and galleries.  

As Jiab has never lived in Thailand as an artist, she hopes that Thailand will accept more artists as an occupation and respect the role of an artist within society. She further explains, “I have the freedom to explore without a certain mindset. For instance, freedom to use yellow or red colors – politically charged in Thailand -- in my work. While it’s more common and accepted to live as an artist in Europe, it doesn’t mean it’s easier. Being an artist is a lifelong progress and we artists do need strong support from friends, family and society to pursue our dreams.” 

According to Jian, having an artistic outlook on life is to appreciate the beauty of our own flaws. Though she has no upcoming plans to exhibit in Bangkok, but you can stay updated on her artwork or exhibitions in Europe through her Instagram page (jiab_prachakul) and her website.