Identity is not fixed. Here I explored the evolution of my own identity over the years, asking “Am I still the person I see in these previous incarnations of myself?”
Identify is often in the news these days, identify politics, gender identity, the ongoing discussion of racial or religious identity, and whether such things should even be noted or discussed.
Portraits, of course, have always been about identity. Who is this person? Who is revealed behind those eyes? Which begs the question – how much of their true self does the sitter reveal? And can an artist hope to discover a truth behind the person the subject appears to be? We all adopt different personas for different situations. We have public and private faces. The person our families know and love may not be the person we are in business. Actors make a profession of convincing us they are other people, but we are all performers to some degree.
Just recently I had the chance to work with a lovely Japanese lady who has been a Canadian for almost as l long as I – an Englishman – have. She kindly modelled for a workshop I gave and I painted a loose demo oil sketch of here there, which set me thinking about a way of portraying here between the two cultures, in the act of becoming Canadian whilst also being Japanese.
It’s something I, as an immigrant, have thought about a lot – I’m proudly Canadian, but undeniably and thoroughly English and, as I get older, my roots call more insistently. I’ve been making paintings that play with this identity question for quite a while. I’d like to talk about a few of these pictures on the eve of an exhibition at the Union Club of British Columbia that will include 4 of them.
Travis is the kind of guy – you might think – who would be scary to get on the wrong side of. Powerfully built, with a shaved head, you might cast him as a bouncer in a gritty TV drama, but appearances are not the whole story; that smile gives it away, far from fearsome, Travis is a gentle giant.
Yes, he has enormous arms and shoulders from earlier as a fisherman, but he’s a good natured, kind soul who know works as a special effects artist in the video game industry. He’s one of Sharon’s oldest friends and I painted this study from life when he came up from Atlanta to visit recently, using a very simple palette of predominantly earth colours.
Duncan Regehr is an actor with a long stream of TV and movie roles to his credit but he’s also a painter, sculptor and poet. His own paintings have often featured multiple representations of the same person, so I chose to incorporate this idea into my exploration of his multiple identities.
Nick is my daughter’s partner and, like many young people, his identity is a work in progress. His own heritage is mixed and he has added another element to that mix by being adopted into one of our First Nations, where he shares proudly in the ritual of the Sundance with his adoptive father.
With his dreadlock and Rastafarian tattoos, the most obvious visual identity he presents is West Indian – his mother’s roots, and yet spiritually he is closer to the people we once called Indians and now recognized as our First Peoples.
Hanif Kureishi, CBE, is one of England’s finest contemporary writers, both as a novelist and for theatre and film. You may remember his Oscar nominated movie “My Beautiful Launderette” – and if you haven’t read his novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” you should. Most of Hanif’s work has dealt with questions of identity as his own experience of growing up as the son of an Indian father and English mother in a time of heightened racial tension gave him a unique view of what identity might mean. Here, I’ve captured him at his writing desk gazing out over the streets of Sheppard’s Bush in the London he loves.
Portraits can be powerful tools. Think of the endlessly reproduced giant faces of Chairman Mao, Stalin or Hitler that were designed to make them seem all seeing and all powerful. Omnipresence through image. Or the portraits of kings and nobles, painted to project majesty and power – or, perhaps, the gentle faces of all those Madonnas or metaphysically detached Christs, designed to be venerated and adored.
Portraits can be part of revolutions too, remember those glorious proletarian banner carriers of Soviet art, or Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s famous painting? These images are meant to provoke, or encourage, to reinforce some kind of belief, they were never merely beautiful, although some of them undoubtedly are. Sometimes a face can focus us on a cause, can give a recognizable personality to something that seemed impersonal and remote. Putting a human face to an issue can make all the difference in how we engage with it.
Most of the time my own work does not aspire to such lofty ideals, the everyday life of a portrait painter is about celebrating the love or admiration we have for one another, either on a personal level or in recognition of more public achievements, but every now and again I am given the opportunity to paint something that seeks to make a difference. I can look back gratefully at the group portrait I made of Haitian orphans that was part of a fund-raising campaign that rebuilt their orphanage, or the portrait of a Hausa King that has helped open doors to aid and relief work where none was possible before and be glad I could help in some small way.
This past week I was at my studio away from home, in rural Connecticut, when I was asked if I would consider painting Leah Shabiru.
Leah is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who was kidnapped in a raid by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s terrifying Islamic militant group, back in February of this year. Many other girls were taken with her, but they have all been released. Leah alone remains captive because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. Unlike every other instance where Boko Haram have seized the headlines by kidnapping girls, this time we have a name. All those other girls, numbering in the hundreds, taken over the past few years and subjected to every imaginable indignity and trauma, remain largely anonymous – especially to the outside world. The suffering of all those girls has been terrible and many of those released have been left physically and mentally scarred for life. Only their families and those who work to bring help to them know who they are. Leah could be the face for all of them – a face to build a campaign around perhaps. But there is only one photograph of her and it does not tell the story that needs to be told. I felt I had to try to make a picture that did.
Looking at that one picture of Leah, taken in happier times, dressed in a white and yellow turban, glasses pushed high on her forehead, and a vivid silk shirt – I saw a snapshot of a pretty girl enjoying life – innocent and lovely. Thankfully it does not hint at her present condition. I did not want to simply copy someone else’s picture of a girl I have never met, but to find a way of portraying a brave girl in an unimaginable situation, a girl whose faith is all she has to cling to.
For two days I worked on a small painting in which I changed the colours of her clothes and reimagined a setting, trying to make something new, that would be my own, out of the limited reference available. At the end of the second day I felt that, whilst a picture was taking shape, something was missing, it wasn’t telling the story I needed to tell. I went to bed anxious and uncertain, knowing that Peter Fretheim, the missionary who had hoped I could make this painting, would be here the following evening, eager to see what I had done. It didn’t help that Lee Cantelon, my good friend who had introduced us, had told Peter a picture was taking shape and had emailed pictures of work in progress enthusiastically. It was a night of uneasy dreams.
I awoke early with a clear vision of a very different painting in my head. I hurried over to the studio and looked at the picture I’d spent the last two days on. Could it be altered to fit this new vison? I made a few tentative strokes and realised that last night’s paint was still too wet to take the massive alterations I had planned. I hesitated, there was so little time. I went back into the house and made some tea. What to do? I had a painting that could be completed, but I was now certain it was not the painting I wanted.
I had missed what I was aiming for. I had to trust the vision I had woken with, to try and get what I had seen out and onto a fresh canvas in just a few short hours if I wasn’t going to disappoint everyone, including myself.
Luckily, Leah’s face was now familiar to me. The struggles I’d had with painting her colouring had begun to resolve in the first portrait and I began again with all I had learned in mind, knowing both what to avoid and with a clear idea of where I was going. I painted hard and fast, closing my eyes occasionally to see the painting inside my head more clearly. Three hours later I had the sense to stop. As I sat back I heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. Lee came in moments later. “Did you finish it?” he asked. I pointed to the new painting on the easel. “Wow, you’re kidding me” he said, ‘that wasn’t here this morning. Where did that come from?” I could only point upwards and smile.
Yes, it is a sketch, it isn’t beautifully finished, and yes, some of the modelling in the face could be further refined, but the painting, loose as it is, tells the story. Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ.
Peter and his wife Miriam, who know the Shabiru’s, were thrilled. They felt this was an image that they could use widely to raise awareness of Leah’s story and give a face to what is happening in that troubled region. I can only hope it helps make part of the difference they are trying to achieve. I’m just glad to have had a chance to do this, glad that sometimes paintings can make a difference and thankful for the vision that came with the morning.
It’s New Year’s Eve, there is snow outside my window and the lake is still and cold, the kind of marrow chilling grey that makes you appreciate central heating. Half a world away there will be fireworks, colour and music blazing into a night peaking just as my day begins. I was there, in Jaipur, just nine days ago, putting the finishing touches to the second of my Kings. Which just goes to show, you never can tell what a year might bring.
I began 2017 in Jaipur too. I had gone there, ostensibly, to help my good friend Lee Cantelon make a film. I know just enough about such things to be useful in a small way and we had a very small budget – none in fact- so anything I could add would be something. I had packed all my portable art making gear as Lee had suggested shots of me sketching and painting might give our documentary a narrative twist. Our film was intended to highlight a project that brings water, medical care and, above all, education and hope for a future to some of the poorest of the poor in Jaipur’s rag-picker camps and slums. Like all such projects, this one needs funding and the film was intended to help.
So, it was no great surprise to find myself in a sprawling encampment, crouched in a home assembled from tarps and found objects, sketching an elderly, tattooed, tribal woman bedecked in bangles and blankets, just two hours after stepping off the plane. Nor to be drawing the beautiful faces of the school kids over the coming days, between camera work and planning our next moves. What did come as a surprise was that Jaipur had a new King – His Highness, The Maharaja, Sawai Padmanabh Singh – and that the Christian community in Jaipur had been in touch with the palace and would like to commission me to paint him as a gift bridging the two communities, if I would like to do it.
Like to? Are you kidding? What an incredible honour! Two days later we bundled into a taxi, cameras and light gear in the trunk, on our way to City Palace, Lee now acting as my assistant and a second cameraman along to record the meeting and photoshoot with His Highness in preparation for his historic first official portrait as Maharaja.
With only days to go before I had to leave for home and His Highness for England to begin the polo season (he plays professionally), live sittings were out of the question, so this portrait would have to be made from photographs. We arrived early to set up equipment and experiment with pose and lighting, before His Highness joined us, generously giving us an hour of his time to work with him – a chance to commit as much of him to memory as I could and to get a feel for who he is. You can shoot a great many pictures in an hour, and each of them tells you a little more, each adding vital information for later use in the studio.
The shoot took place in a magnificent room, decorated as only a palace in Jaipur could be – gilded surfaces, floral patterns, marvelous ornaments, historic pictures, golden chairs and a magnificent silver throne, complete with armrests in the form of prowling lions. To compete with such a setting any subject would have to be equally splendid- the Maharaja undoubtedly is – six feet three and movie star handsome, dressed in a magnificent regal uniform and carrying a bejeweled sword, he commanded the room.
Back in my studio in Canada, it was time to turn the dream into some sort of reality. I experimented with a standing pose before settling on the seated one you see here, which seemed to say so much more. I drew the whole complex composition loosely in charcoal initially, just to make sure everything would fit, before tightening the drawing in sepia paint. Next, I blocked in the major shapes in colour to develop an overall sense of the whole picture before starting the long process of bringing it into focus piece by piece. You might think you’d leap straight into the head in a portrait, but I need to see it in context- every piece of colour affects not only the thing next to it, but the overall tonality of the picture- you see red more strongly played against green, for example, light sings only in contrast to dark, and so on.
There is over a week’s work in that throne, days in the jewelry, many, many, hours in the head -to which I returned again and again over the two months it took to complete the portrait. Finally, I felt it was ready, and sent photographs to the palace for approval. A little tweak here, a touch there, and it was ready to ship to take its place in the Royal Collection. I was sorry to see it go, it had been a presence in my studio for a long time and had given me a great deal of pleasure.
Coming back to Jaipur in December I was less sure what the focus would be. Certainly, there would be more work to do at the school, newly made friends to catch up with, possibly more footage to shoot for the project begun months earlier and always more sketches to make, thinking of the exhibition of paintings I have been planning in support of the work there, but working with Lee there are always surprises.
How would you like to paint another king?
Lee had just returned from Nigeria, where he had been persuaded to meet with a Hausa King and his tribal council who were seeking to build bridges with people who might be able to help them develop the resources they so desperately need. It is no secret that there has been a great deal of conflict and uncertainty in the north of the country, some of it fueled by religious extremism, and the meeting was a courageous first step.
The meeting went well, a bond was forged, plans for further talks made, and the King wished to meet Lee again in the new year. The idea of a portrait to give the King as a gift cementing the new friendship was something I readily agreed to.How often do you get to paint a picture that could literally save lives? If we could build a bridge between these two communities, it could be a game changer and the good will generated by this painting could be a real factor in that. Of course, I had to work from Lee’s photographs rather than from personal experience of the man, something I would normally only ever do for a posthumous subject, but the chance to do some real good with a picture was unmissable.
The painting had to be small enough to carry back to Jos over rough roads, tough enough not to damage and done quickly enough to be dry and framed before I left to get back to Canada for Christmas. I decided on an oil sketch on panel and set about finding equipment in the Pink City, having brought only a sketch book and charcoal on this trip. Buying artists materials in a shop stacked from floor to ceiling with thousands of small boxes, many of them unlabeled, was an adventure in itself. Somehow all I needed appeared from the chaos, accompanied by much smiling, it was wonderful. I was in business.
Working at the school I had a constant, enthralled audience of excitable children. The noise was deafening but joyful. Perhaps by watching they learned a little from me – I hope so, I certainly learned a lot from them.
Working small, fast and loose and combining elements from three or four shots I managed to make the picture you see here over a frenetic few days. Of course, I’d have liked more time, of course it should be bigger, of course I would have liked to control the lighting and to have met the man himself, but you play the hand you’re given.
In 2017 I was given two kings. It doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s a January morning in Jaipur. The early fog has not yet lifted and whilst it may be warm later, it certainly isn’t now, as we bump down the unmade road into the Garidharipura Slum. The lanes are comparatively empty, just a couple of cyclists and women carrying water. The smoke from breakfast fires mingles with the mist, though many here will go hungry for breakfast, they will all drink tea and the fires provide warmth.
My friend, film maker and photographer Lee Cantelon, and I are going to shoot an interview clip with one of our graduates, Nandu, for the short documentary we are making on the rough-and-ready school that is valiantly trying to educate some 350 kids from slums and squatter camps close by. I’ve been here over a week and my heart is full for these people and their struggles. The School seems an oasis of love in a desert of emptiness and scant hope. Life is very hard for these rag pickers and balloon sellers, these casual day-labourers and sometime beggars and their families. Their Caste and lack of education draw in their horizons and put a limit on dreams. Nandu is a success story in the making. Bright, handsome and personable, he is hoping for a career in the Navy. No one else in his family has ever graduated from any kind of school.
When we reach their home, set in a rubble strewn dip that must run with water in the monsoon, the whole family are waiting, wreathed in smiles. They have pulled a bed frame out into the space in front of the house so that we have something to sit on – they own no other furniture and do not want us to see inside their windowless shack.
Nandu’s mother, Bhuri, wrapped in a vivid pink blanket against the cold, squats by a shallow pit filled with glowing coals, warming both herself and a little girl who can’t be more than 3 years old. Nandu’s father, in a wooly hat and scarf, offers us piping hot chai. Sisters and aunts hover shyly in the background. You can see your breath. Despite this, they are proud we have come to their home, proud of Nandu and his education.
The chai is good, and as Lee films the interview sequence – Nandu talking about all that his education means to him and his family and how God has done a marvelous thing in his life – I draw mother and toddler crouched in the smoke. I am struck again by how these people, who have nothing, want to share their homes, their food and drink with strangers. How quick they are to smile with so little, apparently, to smile about. Bhuri has a smile that could melt a glacier, I catch it in a sly photograph.
And then we are done. Back into the small battered van before too many curious onlookers see our white faces and the cameras. We quickly leave this poverty behind. How blessed we are, with our full bellies, and comfortable homes to think of, and memories of these kind people to take back with us. In a few days I will be back in Canada, safe and secure, feeling the guilt of privilege.
Two weeks later, the email comes. Bhuri is dead, felled by a sudden heart attack. I look at my photographs of her, feel overwhelmingly sorry for her family and the boy, Nandu, who is my friend and immediately begin to paint that smile, what else can I do? When it is done I take it to the post office and mail it with love.
Later, in December, Nandu greets me with open arms, his father is with him, they have both come to the small basement church some of the children from the School and their families attend despite opposition from their neighbours. They have brought my portrait of Bhuri with them so we can share it together. Lee takes the photograph you see here of a proud son with his smiling mother. It fills me up, to be here to see it and I’m freshly reminded why painting portraits can be such a great joy.