"As an Asian person, part of me is an Asian living in Berlin, part of me is a Berliner, and now I am building a French part in me. My identity now is not only as an Asian person. I see identities mixing together everywhere I go in Europe. I want to explore them and present them into art history because it matters to me."
Jiab Prachakul is a self-taught Thai painter based in Lyon, France. Prachakul began her career as a casting coordinator at Big Blue Production in Thailand and left the film industry to move to London and become an artist in 2007. While developing her artistic practice, she moved to Berlin and ran a successful art fashion business called JIAB. In 2018, she moved to Lyon and began focusing on her art full time. Her contemporary approach to portraiture quickly caught the art world’s attention and in 2020, she won the BP Portrait Award at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
In this interview, Jiab Prachakul opens up about when she realized she wanted to become an artist, how she financially supported her art by running her own clothing label, and what inspires her the most as an artist.
TGL: How was your childhood?
JP: I grew up in a small town called Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand. It's the last town on the border of Thailand before Laos. I had a simple childhood. My father had an electronic store and would drive to the outskirts of town to collect money from his clients. When he came back, he always brought something nice for me to eat, like bananas or a local pineapple.
I also remember walking to the local bookstore to look at manga. We had a weekly manga update, so that was the peek of my week. My house at the time was just a five minute walk from the Mekong River and right across the river from Laos, so I also took walks with my step mother and my brother to the river to chill out in the evenings. That's how my childhood passed by until I was 18.
TGL: Did you have a special relationship to art as a child?
JP: Not really. The closest thing to art that I had were manga cartoon books. I didn't have any training outside of our school art class, which was just one hour a week. I was really good in the art class though. I always had a top grade and the teacher liked me. Whenever there was an art competition, my teacher sent me. Artistically speaking though, cartoons, movies and books were the art forms I consumed.
I have three brothers and two of them used to be singer-songwriters in Thailand before the Mp3 generation came up, so I get a lot of my artistic approaches from my brothers. The magazines they read, the films they watched, and all the cartoon mangas. The most inspiring part for me was the drawing, how they drew the face and hands. That really fascinated me when I was young, but I didn't think about doing it myself.
TGL: What changed when you were 18?
JP: I went to study at the university, the well-known universities were in Bangkok or up north in Chiang Mai at the time, so like most people I went to Bangkok. I took the entrance exam and had the opportunity to study film. I was excited by film studies and journalism. After one year, they let us choose a concentration and I chose filmography.
I was so happy when I got into university. I finished high school with a math and science focus so it was freeing for me. I didn't have to force myself to study something I had to study, I could study what I really loved, which was film.
TGL: What kinds of films were you attracted to in film school?
JP: The first directors who influenced me a lot were Aki Kaurismaki and Eric Rohmer. I really love Yazujiro Ozu as well. On the Japanese side, I also like Wong Kar-Wai, Takeshi Kitano, Ingmar Bergmann, Andrei Tarkovski, and of course, Apichatping Weerasethakul. I like independent films that talk about being human. Films that have a storyline, but aren't too commercial. Films where even if you are from a different culture, you understand them. For example, when I see an Eric Rohmer film, I don't have to be from Paris to understand what it is about. When I went to Paris, I understood, oh yeah, this is so Parisian, but I didn't have to know that to enjoy the film. It's the same with Apichatpong's films, you don't have to be in Thailand to understand his films because the feeling of the film is worldly.
TGL: When did you become aware and interested in art?
JP: I started to be aware of artists when I went to university. That's when I left my hometown and got access to the library and bigger bookstores. I noticed that I was really drawn to art books in general. I would browse Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt's catalogs. I took the bus to the shopping center and went to the bookstore to browse all the art books every weekend, and it felt good. That's how I started to be interested in art, so I took a class at my university. I was majoring in filmography and minoring in philosophy. My philosophy teacher also taught an aesthetic study, specifically art. She was a fan of Nietzsche, Van Gogh and Paul Klee. That's when I was introduced to art that was a little less figurative. I started to get interested in other types of art, and by the time I finished university, I was really fascinated by art.
TGL: What did you do when you finished your studies?
JP: I went to work in a production house company as a casting coordinator. I worked there for three years, filming, editing tapes, and casting. During these three years, it was an explosion of getting to know culture and more specifically art. Every year, my company brought us on a trip outside of Thailand and one of the trips was to London. It was great because the whole company, including the messenger, maid, cleaner, and all the directors, came on this trip. We went to Tate Modern, and I was totally blown away. Seeing this made me feel not only excited, but also so grateful to be a human being.
At the time, I went to the Saatchi Gallery when they still had the gallery in the South Bank, and I remember Richard Wilson's petrol installation in their beautiful Victorian building. They filled up one room with petrol waste, and you could walk into it. At some point you notice the layer of oil is higher than you, it was so intense. After I came back from that trip, I started to plan a gap year in London or New York. I wanted to find out what I could do, but I didn't think about becoming an artist. I thought maybe I could study editing to become a film editor.
TGL: When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
JP: In London, I went to David Hockney's retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. The first room was his early work. I thought it was fascinating because it was similar to what I created as a teenager or in university. I could do that kind of art as well. In the second room there was the painting Mr. and Mrs Clark and Percy. I saw that painting and it was like someone turned on a light in me, I felt enlightened. I felt like I actually had artistic talent. If David Hockney hadn't continued to work, he wouldn't have arrived at making great works like Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. As I stood in front of that painting I thought to myself, I also want to arrive at something great. I knew I had to really invest all my time and energy into my talent. That's when I thought, I want to become an artist.
TGL: What did you do during this gap year in London?
JP: I worked as a barista at a café and tried to find out what I could do with my life. When I got to London, I realized that the education was too expensive, so I focused more on asking myself what talent I have. As a casting coordinator, the first question we asked the talent at an audition was, "What is your talent?" But if someone came and asked me, "What is your talent?" I wouldn't have known how to answer. I didn't know how to jump like an acrobat, I didn't know how to dance, I didn't know how to sing. What can I do? At the time I thought, I can draw, but I don't know if that's my talent. Being in London was all about finding out exactly what my talent was. I had that moment at the National Portrait Gallery.
TGL: There is a strong relationship to portraiture in your work, was that influenced by the art you saw in London?
JP: The first exhibition that made me realize I wanted to become an artist was the David Hockney exhibition, which was portraiture with a contemporary touch. I started off based on that because I like people, I like figurative, I like characters in movies, and I like contemporary because I want to relate to my own generation. I want to show a picture that is about the now, a picture which says something that matters to me, my friends, or people around me. Even as a filmmaker, I wanted to document this time of my life. Every time I see Eric Rohmer's work, it brings me back to the 1980s in Paris. I hope I can be a reference to someone in the future about this time.
TGL: Did you start drawing in London?
JP: Yes, I started drawing in my London bedroom. After the David Hockney exhibition, I went directly to the art supplies store. I bought a big pad of paper and colored pencils. I started to draw seven or eight pieces that were based off frames from an Aki Kaurismaki film. There were certain scenes in the film that I felt very connected to. A lot of moments in the film are about desperation, but it's a beautiful desperation and it brings you to the light. In London, I felt tense from British society and living in London. I felt that mutual desperation, and I called my exhibition Mutual Desperation as well.
TGL: When was your first exhibition?
JP: I exhibited for the first time in London in 2008. It was an exhibit at a small bar café near where I lived in Whitechapel. They had new paintings on the wall every month, so I brought one of mine to the bar and I asked, "Can I exhibit here?" I showed them my art and they said, "Sure, I love your work. Let's exhibit them" It was very nice. At the time I liked the shoes from the brand B Store. They had the best designs of the year. I thought if someone bought my drawings for the same price as B Store shoes, I would be really happy. I sold most of the drawings from that exhibition.
Then I did another collection, which is inspired by Matthew Barney where I depicted human figures with the animals they look like. I went back to Thailand at the time because my visa expired, and I did the exhibition there. I sold half of them, and then I moved to Berlin. That's when things really started for me as an artist, and I focused on achieving the technical skills.
TGL: What were you doing to support yourself and your art?
JP: I ran a clothing label called JIAB. Things split into my business and my art. The business was doing really well, so I was slowing down on my art and a year in Berlin extended into eight years. During my time in Berlin, I only produced maybe two collections of artwork and three majors paintings.
TGL: Can you tell me more about your business?
JP: We made art-related clothing like tote bags, backpacks, sweatshirts, and T-shirts. I went to Italy with my business partner at the time and we bought all kinds of material, and then I produced the bags myself. That's why the business did so well, it was a product that people hadn't seen before because it was made every week by us.
Then, I moved to Lyon, France, to be with my now husband and then boyfriend and split with my business partner. My perspective of my business changed when I left Berlin, and the manner of keeping the business going also changed. So I focused on myself and what I wanted to do in my life. I realized that I wasn't making enough art, and that was the reason I came to Europe in the first place. I wasn't even spending 50% of my time doing art, so I started to create a lot of art and that was quite encouraging.
TGL: When did you focus only on your art?
JP: I moved to Lyon in 2018 and then 2019, I started to focus only on painting. I had a realization when I turned 40 that I just wanted to do art, because I was shuffling between my business in Berlin and my art. I told my husband that I may be out of income and we may have to be poor. He said, "Don't worry. Go for what you want to do." So I was really focused in 2019, and that's when I made the work which won the BP Award.
It was an intense moment moving from Berlin to Lyon, it was a clash of different cultures. I'd lived in Berlin for a long time, and it's so different in Lyon. Every time I went back and forth, I came back and I was shocked. I was so confused about my identity.
TGL: What is your driving inspiration as an artist?
JP: The people around me. I have a background in film, so when people ask me why I like figurative, I think the answer is because when I see a film I empathize with the characters in the movie. The way a director depicts a character tells me about my feelings too. That's why I like figures, because I like humans, I like interaction, I like anatomy. When I started to make my art, I was drawn to the figure and features of humans, and then I expanded more and more into the story around the humans. I like to think of my paintings as film stills. I want my audience to look at a painting and see a story in it. When they look at the sitters, I want them to think: who are they and what do they do in their life?
TGL: What are you working on right now?
JP: I'm working on two collections. One explores the Asian identity, in which I paint Asian people I don't know personally. I want to depict how beautiful life is as an Asian. I want to bring out this Asian identity, do they have certain professions? Do they have certain talents? I want the Asian audience especially to look at the paintings and see that they have choices.
The other collection explores my relationship as an Asian person living in Europe. I merge figurative that is Asian with figurative that is Caucasian. I explore the color of the skin and life context of the sitter or the couple in the painting. Maybe it's a friend of mine that comes from Hungary, how can this context run alongside the context of it being painted by an Asian artist with the Asian touch?
I want to explore this in a new light because as an Asian person, part of me is an Asian living in Berlin, part of me is a Berliner, and now I am building a French part in me. My identity now is not only as an Asian person. I see identities mixing together everywhere I go in Europe. I want to explore them and present them into art history because it matters to me.
TGL: What do you like most about French culture?
JP: I really like the people. I think French people have a common way of sympathizing that is quite amazing. For example, I went to the pharmacy and I wanted to buy a linden infusion, but the price was really high. I didn't know why the price was so high, so I asked the shop assistant. She looked and said, "Oh yeah, you are right, this is quite high. Let me check." I told my husband, "This is so human, it doesn't matter that she works for this company, she understands that we have this concern in common as human beings." I think it's nice that you can sympathize and make a simple conversation with people in businesses. That's what I like, apart from, of course, the beautiful food.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't already know?
JP: I would really love to meet David Hockney and Kerry James Marshall. I did this with Apichatpong Weerasethakul actually. I didn't know him, but I was a fan, so I wrote him an email asking if I could paint him. He came to Lyon for a job and we met for lunch. It was one of my best experiences with a sitter ever.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JP: I have a mantra that I always apply to myself: accepting, assuming and moving forward. When I came back to painting full time, I had a moment of self-pity, because I hadn't studied art. I thought to myself, you don't know anyone, you don't have training, you're no one from Thailand, you are nobody. I had to accept all of these parts that I thought were my weak points. Yes, I am this person. I accept myself, I want to be a professional artist, and I keep moving forward to be one.