After working as a portrait painter for 14 years, the 41-year-old Thai-born, Lyon-based artist Jiab Prachakul is finally having her first solo show.
The exhibition at San Francisco’s Friends Indeed Gallery, aptly titled “14 Years,” comes at a moment of snowballing success for the artist, who last year won the coveted BP Portrait Award at London’s National Portrait Gallery for her double portrait Like that work, the eight intimate and stylish paintings at the gallery feature Prachakul’s friends, all fellow Asians living in Europe.
“I didn’t expect to win—I just wanted to be selected to join the exhibition and have my work exhibited somewhere finally,” Prachakul told Artnet News.
Besting 1,980 other artists from 69 countries, it was a huge breakthrough for the self-taught Prachakul, who was inspired to begin painting after seeing a 2006 David Hockney retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery.
She had excelled in art classes as a child, but her father discouraged the idea of pursuing it professionally. Instead, Prachakul studied film at Thammasat University in Bangkok. After graduation, she worked for three years as a casting associate in advertising production before moving to London, where that fateful museum visit changed the course of her life.
Not long after, Prachakul moved to Berlin and dedicated herself to painting. But while she steadily improved her technique, she found it difficult to gain traction in the city’s insular art world. “In Berlin, all the galleries don’t want to work with you if you’re not an academy artist or you’re not recommended by a professor or a curator,” Prachakul said. “A lot of people told me it was nearly impossible.”
Art school might have been the right path if Prachakul had set out to become an artist at 18, but as it is, “I’m kind of grateful not to have too much training,” she said, noting that some of her friends with formal art education were discouraged by professors who didn’t believe in their work. “I would have to have tried hard to be what they wanted to see,” Prachakul said. Instead, “I set the standard for myself.”
And thought it may have taken longer this way, after the award came from the National Portrait Galery, the offers from dealers came rolling in.
“I had a lot of galleries contacting me, but they were focused on selling. I’m not focused on becoming rich from my work, ” Prachakul said. “I needed help with a more academic kind of approach—I would really love to place my work in as many museums as possible.”
Micki Meng, the owner of Friends Indeed gallery, “focuses on emergent conversations of diaspora,” she told Artnet News in an email. “The work immediately spoke to me,” she said, praising Prachakul’s “talent, grit, and distinct voice.”
Each portrait takes Prachakul weeks to complete. She estimates she has made just 40 to 50 finished works altogether, which makes it difficult to keep up with demand. Commissions are booked through 2023, according to the even as she’s shifted to painting full time over the last year.
“I’m not a quick producer at all,” Prachakul said, “and everyone comes from everywhere, wanting a piece of artwork from me.”
The works in the show, priced between $15,000 and $30,000, are all sold. They went via “textbook placement,” Meng said, or what the dealer calls “the holy grail: Museums and board trustees who are building some of the most important collections of our time.”
It’s a giant leap for an artist who not long ago had to scrimp and save just to ship to the National Portrait Gallery for judging.
Prachakul first entered the BP Portrait Award competition in 2017, but was discouraged when her piece did not make it past the first round. Two years later, her husband, blockchain architect Guillaume Bouzige, encouraged her to try again, and she advanced to the physical judging rounds.
It was an exciting, but expensive, proposition that meant she had to pay to ship the work to London to be viewed in person—and then to have sent it back when it wasn’t chosen for the competition exhibition. Altogether, it cost about €2,000.
“I said, ‘That’s really encouraging, and I’m just going to try every year and set aside a budget,’” Prachakul recalled. The next year, her investment paid off.
Looking back at how the past 14 years have unfolded, Prachakul’s work has evolved from achieving technical perfection to creating a unique voice for herself. “I started out saying that I want to paint as good as the Old Masters,” Prachakul said. “Asian artists, we want to be known for our achievement.”
But after a certain point, she began to realize that the painters she most admired, like Hockney and Kerry James Marshall, didn’t represent the community that she was part of. “They are painting their subject matters, not subject matters,” Prachakul said. “I could wait forever for my identity to be counted—but I am an artist. So I can do it for myself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for me.”
The realization “was an explosion of emotion: I need to capture Asian representation in my work,” Prachakul said. But she also hopes it has broader appeal. “Of course it’s about Asian diaspora and Asian identity, but moreover I want to speak about the experiences we all have as human beings.”