Facing Yourself - Nahem Shoa's Portraits At Bury Museum & Art Gallery

By Kay Carson | 22 September 2006
head and shoulders portrait of a black woman with a shaved head

Giant Head of Desiree, 2002. Courtesy Bury Art Gallery

Kay Carson goes to Bury Art Gallery and finds herself face to face with some colossal portraits.

There is nothing so revealing as a portrait. It’s not pixel-perfect accuracy, where the camera never lies (allegedly) – rather, it is a truth. Perhaps not the truth the model was hoping for, but the truth of the artist nonetheless.

Nahem Shoa: Facing Yourself, at Bury Art Gallery until November 11 2006, comprises 25 oil paintings of people from various ethnicities, who all regard themselves as British. The heads are 15 times larger than lifesize, yet, despite the grandiose scale, the mood is quite the opposite: muted, dignified and very personal.

Viewed up close, they are abstract patches of colour, a little garish and crazy in some places. But stand halfway down the room and the dimensions begin to manifest themselves: wisps of hair become unruly, cheekbones bulge from the canvas, as the characters gently come to life. Definitely characters, not subjects. You feel you can pick up something of the nature of each person just by looking at what Shoa has to say.

photo of a woman standing between two face portraits that are the same height as her

Giant Head of Caroline and Giant Head of Marive. Courtesy Bury Art Gallery

I know I would recognise anywhere the human version of Giant Head of Caroline (2005) with its florid features, or the extraordinarily thick, textured eyelashes of the Giant Heads of Inma (2004) and Marive (2005). The grace of Desiree (2002) is just breathtaking.

“I try to define something very intimate about the sitters, their inner presence, completely opposite to the large scale I paint them in,” says Shoa. “My aim is to capture a duality of the inner and the outer world, where the paint and the human merge and become a living reality.”

face portrait of a man turning his head to look behind him

Nahem Shoa Self-Portrait, 2002. Courtesy Bury Art Gallery

Shoa takes anything between 200 and 400 hours to complete a portrait. In that time, of course, you would imagine he gets to know the models pretty well. “There is no formula to it, but it is to do with getting to know their essence,“ he says. “For example, I could paint the nose 50 times, but then I find one form which sums up the nose, is the essence of it.”

“So as a result, it’s not a copy of nature, but a force of nature in itself.”

He insists upon using only live sittings; in fact, he almost winces at the very suggestion of working from photos. “It’s not about realism, like a photograph; it’s about being a painting.” What about his own self-portrait? Surely photos were inevitable, I press. Deadpan, he responds: “I used mirrors the whole time. Nothing else.”

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