Painter and leading academic, Paul Dash, invited us to his studio in Hackney, London, to discuss his contribution to the No Colour Bar exhibition with Immaculata Abba. Born in Barbados in 1946, Dash left home at the age of eleven to join his parents who had already left for the UK. Although Dash discovered his talent for art at a young age, his poor educational background inhibited this growth, but it also fostered a passion for art education within Dash. Teaching in schools and universities, Dash has conducted specialised research into the experience of African Caribbean students in education and art education. His love for art education, however, has limited his ability to commit to painting. Therefore, in spite a long-term involvement with the Caribbean artists movement, Dash has always remained on the periphery of this community. Nonetheless, being included in the No Colour Bar exhibition has begun to open doors for Dash and he is now being recognised for artwork in the Caribbean too.
Dash’s experiences in the British education system were abysmal. Suffering greatly from institutional racism, Dash’s schooling is not a fond memory. He recollects that, along with his older brother, they were the first two black children in his secondary school in Oxford and they were “hated by the staff”.
The prejudice Dash experienced meant that, although he was a bright student, more capable than most of the children in his class, he was placed in the bottom set and neglected. Cruelly, because Dash was an able student he was constantly aware that his education was a disaster while at school, yet he had very high ambition. Drawn to art from an early age, Dash went to art classes not knowing his own skill. However, he remembers walking across the playground one day and being interrupted by a teacher who mistook him for British surrealist painter, Paul Nash. For Dash this strange encounter demonstrated that “my reputation was building behind the scenes”. Following his passion for art, Dash gained a scholarship to study at Chelsea School of Art. However, again being the only black student, he felt bereft of exposure to artists of a similar cultural background and disliked the constructivist concepts taught here.
Inspired by his terrible experiences with education and art education, Dash has dedicated himself to righting this wrong. Teaching in a secondary school in Hackney for fifteen years, Dash felt he “loved the kids and I really, really felt thrilled and fortunate to be working with kids like that”. Taking his passion a step further, Dash has explored culture and racism in art education and has been awarded a PhD by Goldsmiths, University of London for this work. In spite of his commitment to art education, Dash has always remained dedicated to painting. In fact, the start of his teaching career coincided with the beginning of his involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement. Although involved with the movement from the start, Dash has always remained on the peripheries of the Black art community, mainly due to his inability to create enough artwork alongside teaching.
“I had individual pieces of work that got into the Royal Academy, the Whitechapel and various other exhibitions. Yet, black organisations of people involved with Black art, didn’t seem to see me, which was quite painful. My wife would tell you how frustrated I got!”
However, after showing at the No Colour Bar exhibition, Dash is finding that he is finally gaining the recognition that he feels he deserves. His intimate Self-portrait (1979) featured in the exhibition and demonstrates Dash’s preference for a traditional figurative style, which did not align with the conceptualism of his art education. Although this work was created whilst Dash was living in a small flat with very limited light, meaning that it is tonally dark, Dash represents himself well. His painting is now being recognised by art organisations abroad and he hopes to feature his painting in the Caribbean Festival of the Arts this year. Dash is immensely grateful to No Colour Bar, describing it as “one of the biggest experiences and one of the most important experiences in art that I’ve had… showing work alongside people like Aubrey Williams, Ronald Moody, Sonia Boyce and Denzil Forrester, and many others, that I greatly respect.”
Interview with Immaculata Abba. Edited by Lara Pysden