Paul Dash

Self-Portrait

1979

Not on display

Artist
Paul Dash born 1946
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 329 × 252 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Nicholas Themans Trust 2022
Reference
T15789

Summary

Self-Portrait 1979 is a small-scale portrait in oil paint on hardboard that depicts the artist’s head and bust, his left hand holding a paint brush poised over a palette. The bespectacled subject stares directly out at the viewer wearing a blue sweater over a red collared shirt, a green and black cravat, a medallion and an iridescent yellow cap, set against a dark green and black patterned background edged in dark brown panels.

Dash described Self-Portrait as a turning point in his career, following a period of upheaval after leaving his home in Oxford for London in 1965 and his disappointing experience studying at Chelsea College of Art, where his creativity and inclination towards figuration were frowned upon. At the same time, in London he became a part of the nascent Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) and found a community of like-minded Caribbean artists and intellectuals after experiencing discrimination and racism throughout his youth in Britain. In 1979 Dash was living with his partner and small baby in a cramped council flat in north London. Feeling as though he had been painting ‘rubbish’ to appease his disinterested tutors at Chelsea and conform to the pervading attitudes of contemporary art at the time, he decided to ‘paint in a traditional way’, took out a mirror and started to paint himself (Paul Dash in conversation with Tate curator Daniella Rose King, 16 June 2021.) It is the only self-portrait Dash has ever produced. Dash has described the non-ideal setting and his resourcefulness in lighting the picture: ‘The flat was on the second floor of a block and surrounded by other high-rise buildings. As such, the light was poor, the room and my skin, dark. To lighten the composition, therefore, I made a paper hat of yellow sugar paper which brought lighter tones and balance to the painting.’ (Paul Dash, ‘Self-Portrait’, n.d., artist’s website, http://pauldash.squarespace.com/#/new-gallery-2/, accessed 10 July 2021.)

On portraiture and representations of the black body in art, Dash has spoken of his lack of access to paintings of black subjects in the flesh, although he was inspired by ‘[Paul] Gauguin’s confidence in finding colour specific to representing the exquisite browns, purples and other hues intrinsic to the colouring of the black body’ (Dash 2018). Dash does not deny Self-Portrait’s affinities with the aesthetics of contemporaneous radical and black power movements, of which he was acutely aware, but feels that it may have been a subconscious reference. Nonetheless, the subject’s posture and gaze are defiant and confident, unapologetic even, capturing a moment of transformation for the artist, as he returns to his own artistic vision, becomes a father, and enters a new chapter of his life and career. (Dash 2018.) Dash has described his experience of racism during his childhood and teenage years, referring to the ‘cesspool of racist secondary school under-education’ when he was at school and his feeling like he ‘was the only black schoolboy in the whole of Oxford’ (Paul Dash, ‘Artist Statement’, in Lifeline: A Retrospective of Works by Paul Dash, 198 Contemporary Art, 2019; and Paul Dash, in conversation with Tate curator Daniella Rose King, 16 June 2021.)

Further reading
Beverley Mason and Margaret Busby (eds.), No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960–1990, exhibition catalogue, Friends of the Huntley Archives at London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA), London 2018, pp.58, 95.
Paul Dash, ‘Artist Statement’, Arrivants: Making Exhibitions in the Caribbean, 13 November 2018, https://arrivantsexhibition.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/arrivants-paul-dash, accessed 20 June 2021.
‘Artist Statement’, Lifeline: A Retrospective of Works by Paul Dash, exhibition pamphlet, 198 Contemporary Art, London 2019.

Daniella Rose King
July 2021

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