A Question of Identiy

Self Portrait at 60
Self Portrait by David Goatley: “So Many Selves at 60″, Oil on linen, 40″ x 30”

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.

Oil painting of a Japanese born Canadian immigrant with cultural symbolism
“Culture Shift” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

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.

Painting of a strong but gentle man
“The Gentle Giant” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

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.

Painting of "Duncan Regehr" by David Goatley: Oil on canvas, 40" x 30"
“Duncan Regehr” by David Goatley: Oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″

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.

Painting of a Sundancer
“Sundancer” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

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.

"Hanif Kureishi" by David Goatley: Oil on canvas 36" x 24"
“Hanif Kureishi” by David Goatley: Oil on canvas 36″ x 24″

The Captive

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.

In the Connecticut studio (photo by Lee Cantelon)

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.

The first painting underway (photo by Lee Cantelon)

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.

Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ

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.

 

Bhuri’s Painting

Sketching at Nandu’s home

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.

David and Nandu with Bhuri's portrait
David and Nandu with Bhuri’s portrait

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.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Outside the Louvre, Paris
Outside the Louvre, Paris

If you’ve ever been to the Louvre or the Prado, the National Gallery in London or the Met in New York – let alone the Hermitage – you will know these great galleries are vast and packed with mile on mile of treasures. Got an afternoon to spare? Don’t attempt one of these museums – or rather, don’t be rash enough to try to cram all they contain into a few short hours. It is possible to OD on Art, to see so much you stop seeing at all, and stumble out into the daylight overloaded and numb.

You might want to whisper this, but what if you’re not really into Medieval Altar Pieces, or endless Madonnas, or more Saints than you ever knew existed? It’s OK! Many people share your secret. You don’t have to look at them. You can just go straight to the rooms full of the stuff you do want to see – no one will know.

If I have limited time, my first stop is always the gallery book shop. Here you can thumb quickly through the gallery catalogue, discover the things you really must see, consult the guidebook and go straight to them, guilt free! If I’m in London, there are a couple of old friends I have to visit – two Rembrandts and a Caravaggio. I know where they are in the National Gallery and go right to them if I only have a few minutes – admission there is by donation, so I can just pop in and say hello.

The halls of the Louvre
The halls of the Louvre

Of course, if you have more time – the whole day perhaps, or a couple of days so that you can split your visit into manageable chunks – you can try and see it all. Sometimes wandering from room to room in an unfamiliar gallery yields wonderful surprises and not consulting the guide first makes entering each room a voyage of discovery. When I went to the Prado, specifically to see the Velasquez’s, I let the rest of the collection take me by surprise. It was thrilling! To come into a room and stumble on Hieronymus Bosch was a revelation – likewise Roger van de Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ – masterpieces I have loved for years and yet known only from books, suddenly in front of me – and perfectly preserved, their jewel-like colours as fresh as the day they were painted nearly 500 years ago. Wonderful! A long room full of Raphaels. Rubens for a hundred yards. A fabulous and unexpected Van Dyck. Marvelous Spanish painters that were new to me – and so much more. I was glad, for once, that I had not prepped for this visit, so that the whole thing was an unfolding dream.

My first visit to the Louvre was quite different, we had very little time and company that had a low threshold for artistic exposure, so I picked up the catalogue and we sat down for coffee. We quickly agreed things that we would all like to see and made directly for them. I was happy to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Caravaggio’s scandalous and wonderful ‘Death of the Virgin’, Sharon enjoyed a breeze through the Egyptian collection and my daughter’s boyfriend loved the ceilings, so everyone was happy.

In the Louvre viewing The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio
In the Louvre viewing ‘The Fortune Teller’ by Caravaggio

If you have the time and like a challenge, make yourself see the parts of these magnificent galleries you thought you might like to miss. You might stumble on an artist you have never heard of and find you love or discover that, actually, those Medieval Altar painters really knew what they were doing and that their beautifully preserved works are real treasures you’d have hated yourself for missing. And if you want to fall in love with the Madonna, Sassoferato’s simply exquisite portrait in the National Gallery is a great place to begin.

Sassoferato's Madonna in The National Gallery, London
Picture of Sassoferato’s Madonna taken during a visit to The National Gallery, London

Above all, there is no substitute for seeing great paintings in person, it’s a visceral, thrilling experience that no photograph of them can ever match. No matter how familiar you think you are with a work from books, the real thing will always yield surprises, and be so much richer. You will likely be poorer however, especially if you’re like me, because having found all of these new artists, you now have to buy the books!