Nahem Shoa with Portrait of Desmond Haughton (1989) at Ferens Art Gallery, May 2022.

Artist Nahem Shoa gifts two exceptional artworks to the Ferens Art Gallery

The artist Nahem Shoa has generously gifted two artworks to the Ferens Art Gallery.

Shoa originally contacted Kerri Offord, Curator of Art, to see if the Ferens would be interested in acquiring a portrait made by Shoa of his friend, the artist Desmond Haughton.

Portrait of Desmond Haughton (1989) was started in March and finished in April 1989. The portrait was painted from their life in their student house in Old Trafford, Manchester, where they both lived.

From 1988-91, they were both studying BA Fine Art (Painting) at Manchester Polytechnic (now known as Manchester Metropolitan University). The portrait was painted at night after college and involved Haughton sitting for five one-hour sessions over a number of weeks. Around the same time in 1989, Nahem had just won first prize at the Under 30s Show in the Manchester Academy’s annual show at the Athenaeum, which showed that his early work had a maturity and clarity of vision and technique of a mature artist.

The painting was made on board and originally showed himself and his friend Haughton. The two were the only diverse students on their course: Haughton being black and Shoa of mixed Asian heritage. Shoa has spoken of the challenges of being a non-white artist in the art world, but also the support of Haughton in pushing him to become a better artist.

Nahem Shoa said: “The portrait was originally conceived as a double portrait with me over his right shoulder, but I felt the picture worked better as single portrait.

“Desmond Haughton is one of my oldest and best friends and I have known him since we met at 11 years old, studying at Holland Park Comprehensive, London. He is an outstanding painter in his own right and over the years we have pushed each other to become better artists.”

Speaking about the context of his works, Shoa said: “Many of my black friends who posed for me many times over a thirty-year period felt that when they went to museums the only images of black people are of slaves or servants, which they all found very negative. I wanted to readdress this issue by getting my contemporary black portraits of black Britishers in collections of Museums and Art Galleries across the British Isles because I and they think it’s important for cultural institutions today to reflect diversity in a positive and powerful way.”

Kerri Offord, Curator of Art at the Ferens Art Gallery said: “Nahem emailed me back in January to ask if we would be interested in accepting an artwork from him as a gift to the Ferens collection and the people of Hull. I knew of Nahem for his reputation as an artist and a curator who addresses the lack of portraits of black and brown people represented in art history and public collections. I was very excited to learn that he was offering an early painting made when he was just 19.”

When Shoa visited the Ferens to gift the painting, he was discussing the collection with Curator Kerri Offord when they started to talk about the collection of nude works held by the Ferens. Offord expressed that she desired to fill a gap within this collection by acquiring a nude by a female artist, as all of the depictions of nude women were by men. Shoa was struck by this comment and generously offered a work that he had been gifted by his friend, the artist Louise Courtnell.

Courtnell is an artist inspired by the Dutch masters, such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. She has exhibited in the prestigious Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery seven times and her work is in the collection of Royal Holloway College. The stillness of her work echoes that of Gwen John, which is evident in her quietly emotive self-portraits.

Louise Courtnell said: “Throughout history the majority of paintings of female nudes were painted by male artists to satisfy the sexual tastes of male collectors. As a female artist I wanted to take back ownership of this subject and imbue it with new meaning. I wanted the female nude to be seen through a woman’s perspective.  

“When I painted myself nude, I try to paint what I see as honestly as I can, no makeup or attempts at flattery because I’m happy in my skin and think this makes for a deeper kind of beauty. I don’t like how society only terms one kind of female shape as beautiful because I see all women’s bodies as wonderful and amazing. There are very few female nude self-portraits in the history of art and I hope that my portrait adds something fresh and new to this theme.”

Kerri Offord added: “We are thrilled to have Louise’s work included within the Ferens’ collection. Her talent is undeniable and photographic reproductions do not do justice to her work. The handling of the paint creates a great feeling of emotion and quiet introspection which needs to be appreciated in person.

“It is fantastic to finally have a female nude by a woman artist in the collection. It adds to the conversation and helps create new fresh narrative when viewing the historic female nudes by male artists.”

Councillor Pritchard, HCAL Lead at Hull City Council said: “I’d like to offer my thanks to Nahem Shoa and Louise Courtnell for their generous donations, we are extremely privileged to be able to display the works of these two incredible artists. I would encourage local people to see and enjoy the works for themselves.”

Both Nahem Shoa and Louise Courtnell’s works will be on display in Gallery 9 of the Ferens from Saturday 25 June.

The Millennium Bridge and River Hull Tidal Barrier