Notions of identity are a constant theme in Thai-French artist Jiab Prachakul’s intimate portraits of herself, her family, and her close friends. After growing up in Thailand and living in several European cities, the figurative painter has ruminated a lot on how a person’s identity shifts over time, as well as what can and can’t be intimated from their appearance.
“It doesn’t feel special at first to be different. But then I noticed it made me special,” she told ARTnews in over Zoom. “You can be proud, you can be proud of being you. You can be intellectual, you can be educated. You’re not dumb.”
In an expansive interview ahead of her second solo show, Prachakul spoke about how her works reflect her ongoing thoughts about identity, her experiences as an immigrant who hasn’t lived in Asia in a long time, and her changing definition of success. The show, Rendezvous in Time, opened at Timothy Taylor in New York on Wednesday. The nine paintings—featuring lush greenery, perfect sunny days, and scenes of friendship and love—track the painter’s artistic evolution since winning the BP Portrait Award in 2020. Prachakul spent a month on each work, combining memories and moments of elevated, “magical feelings” into each large canvas.
“You feel warm, and you sit on the bench and there’s a sun casting on, shining, and you feel life is good,” she said. “They have to deliver one soul feeling which I think is like, sweet solitude.”
Prachakul was born in the small town of Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand, the youngest of three girls. Before she became an artist, she studied film at Thammasat University and worked as a casting director for several years. After viewing a David Hockney exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006, she was inspired to teach herself how to paint portraits. After periods in London, Berlin, and Lyon, Prachakul is now based in Vannes, Brittany France, where she lives with her husband, Guillaume Bouzige.
In addition to self-portraits, Prachakul’s paintings show sitters drawn from her community of Asian designers, musicians, and artists also living in Europe. “It’s important to me to look at Asian beings and reassure myself that yes, it is great,” she said. “There are a lot of Asians that live in a context that is continental or not Asian-oriented.”
The shared experience of moving to a new place outside of Asia, and the way her sitters actively shape their identities through everyday choices, often inspires Prachakul. “Everyone that I paint, there is something I learn about them,” she said. “The way they dress, the way they live, or the insistence in becoming something becoming an artist or the hardships they face.”
Prachakul’s profile grew significantly in 2020, when she unexpectedly won the BP Portrait Prize for her portrait Night Talk, beating 1,981 entries. The double portrait portrayed Korean designer Jeonga Choi and Korean film director Hyunah Kang sitting in a bar in Berlin. The following year, Prachakul had her first solo show in the US presented by Friends Indeed Gallery in San Francisco. The title, 14 Years, was a reference to how many years of painting it took for her to win the £35,000 portrait prize and the commission from the National Portrait Gallery. Prachakul used the funds from her award win to pay back her husband for expenses as well as covering the costs of trips to Brittany for her friends and sitters.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that before because I was broke,” she said. “It was really special. It feels like they are my family.”
A lot of beautiful, magical moments happened on those trips, she said, and some of them became part of the paintings in Prachakul’s new show. Sunny skies are seen in Girlfriends (2022), Instilled (Diptych), and her self-portrait with her husband.
The self-described “film geek” told ARTnews how much she loves composition, filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Yasujiro Ozu, as well as following the work of photographers online. Those influences, as well as the decade she spent fervently attending art exhibitions, explains why her work often feels cinematic in how it’s framed, like images from a storyboard.
Instilled, for example, combines the view from the window in Prachakul’s former apartment in Lyon, with a scene from her current home in Vannes. Maison Rose is another diptych featuring two figures paddleboarding on the Gulf of Morbihan against a shimmering wilderness, and the namesake pink house on the right.
Prachakul said she decided to work with Timothy Taylor after her first collaboration with Mikki Meng because of the gallery’s understanding of her work, as well as its development and encouragement of her career. She was thrilled when the gallery invited her to participate in the group show IRL (In Real Life) in London in 2021.
In March, Timothy Taylor also brought one of Prachakul’s paintings to Art Basel Hong Kong. The piece, Three Sisters, is a personal work about Prachakul’s life, but it also illustrates universal themes about family, loss, and identity that go “beyond the borders of appearance.” The work is based on a childhood photo of Prachakul with her sisters Mod and Joy. It was taken before Joy’s death at the age of 13, only a year before their mother would also pass away. On Instagram, Prachakul described the experience of reflecting on and painting the image as “a form of empathy only I can offer to myself (so I can have all the empathy I need for my sitters and others)”.
“Everyone understands—you don’t have to be Asian—you understand how it feels to lose your sister,” she said. “You understand how it feels to be lonely. You don’t have to be Asian or poor to feel like you don’t fit in.”
The exhibition Rendezvous In Time will take place at Timothy Taylor’s gallery in New York (74 Leonard Street) from September 6 to October 14.