Self-Portrait (1979) Oil on canvas 35.5 x 28 cm Collection: the Artist
Paul Dash was born in Fairfield Cross Road, St. Michael, Barbados, in 1946, and is based in London, UK. He emigrated to Oxford England in 1957 with his family at the age of 11. After completing the Foundation course at Oxford Polytechnic, now Brooke University (1964-1965), he completed a BA at Chelsea School of Art in1968 and an MA at the Institute of Education University of London (Distinction) in 1990. In 2009 Dash was awarded a PhD from Goldsmiths University of London, writing a dissertation on African Caribbean pupils in Art Education.
Dash was an active member of Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) during 1969-1972 and exhibited with the group at various venues in London and Kent. He participated in the Whitechapel Open Exhibition in the 1980s, and Caribbean Connection 2: Island Pulse, at Islington Arts Factory in 1996 which was curated by Denzil Forrester. Other exhibitions include Revellers Gather for Mas’ at The Royal Academy (1998) and No Colour Bar at Guildhall Art Gallery, London (2015-16). His recent work has focused on the boat refugee crisis. In 2019, Paul Dash will present his first solo exhibition at 198 Gallery Brixton.
The portrait was painted at a time of some frustration for me at not having access to a studio or area dedicated for making work. This lack of space and time for working, resulted in unsatisfactory, “experimental” pieces appropriate to my domestic arrangements and circumstances. Self-confidence was rapidly diminishing. I decided that a challenge was needed to showcase my skills and give meaning to making encounters above and beyond a few ill-conceived collages and crudely worked still-life set-ups. The choice of subject had the advantage of a permanent, largely unchanging presence and it engaged those aspects of making in art I most enjoyed: drawing and painting in oils.
At that time I had not painted a full-on portrait of a black sitter and hadn’t seen many portraits of black people in the flesh; paintings in which there was a black presence yes, but few portraits in which artists struggled to say something specific about such sitters. Rembrandt, Pieter Paul Rubens, Marie Benoist, Augustus John and others had made wonderful paintings of black subjects but I hadn’t yet seen them in a gallery setting or had the opportunity to study such works in depth.
The one artist, however, who made the black body his specialism was Gauguin. As a result, I had taken an interest in his art from my mid-teens. Whilst at Oxford School of Art, I had a very good older friend who loved Gauguin, both his lifestyle and his art. He introduced me to the work of the French artist. On visits to the National Gallery, Courtauld Institute and later the Louvre in Paris, Gauguin’s technique for modelling and representing black body hues was inspirational – his use of umbers, ochres, reds and other colours on the palette caressed and celebrated the black body. Works by many other great artists would one day inspire me as well but Gauguin filled my imagination with new possibilities. This self-portrait, while not borrowing heavily from his technique, was inspired by Gauguin’s confidence in finding colour specific to representing the exquisite browns, purples and other hues intrinsic to the colouring of the black body. Most of all Gauguin taught me to look and peel away extraneous material not implicit to an understanding of the subject under scrutiny.
I made the painting in the bedroom I shared with Jean, which was situated on the northern side of our first-floor apartment in a block surrounded by other high buildings. Although the room was dark, its position should have been an advantage by offering consistency of light throughout the day. Over time, however, I became disillusioned with the poor quality of light. To counteract this, I introduced the pale yellow hat, which was a mere roll of paper. It, however, added balance to the work and sparked new life in what was a truly difficult but stimulating challenge.