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Artist Nahem Shoa makes everyone look big headed. On the eve of his latest exhibition, he tells David Whetstone what inspires him.

Artist Nahem Shoa makes everyone look big headed. On the eve of his latest exhibition, he tells David Whetstone what inspires him.

Peter Mandelson opens a stunning exhibition in Hartlepool tomorrow night - but this is far more than just the local MP doing his bit in an official capacity.

The politician is actually one of the subjects in the exhibition by prize-winning painter Nahem Shoa whose fondness for massive, close-up portraits - what he terms his "giant heads" - has helped to earn him a sizeable following.

Yesterday Nahem, who lives in London's fashionable Notting Hill, said he's had a long association with Hartlepool.

A friend, Geoff Crannage, who he met when studying at the former Manchester Poly, is now head of art at St Hild's School in the town where one of his paintings is also displayed.

He first met Peter Mandelson in 1995 during the Hartlepool Arts Festival where he was exhibiting.

"I met him quite a few times and we had a drink. He's an incredibly interesting man. When you meet powerful people, you find they often are fascinating."

The MP commissioned a portrait which Nahem recalls was "a very quick painting, not one of those which takes months or years".

The painting now hangs in what Hartlepool Art Gallery refers to as Mr Mandelson's "private art collection". Nahem says it's quite a good one.

Quick paintings are not really Nahem's stock-in-trade, as you will appreciate if you go to see Giant Heads & Multiculture at Hartlepool Art Gallery.

The biggest of them are 7ft tall and almost as wide and the oil paint on them lies an inch thick.

"This is probably one of the biggest figurative exhibitions that has gone across England for a decade," says Nahem.

"It's a big show as the heads are 15 times life size. The biggest take about 400 hours to paint. I like to work on 10 or 11 paintings at a time but over the last five years I've done maybe 60 paintings and discarded 20."

Even more extraordinary is the fact that Nahem works directly from models rather than from photos.

While he does work to commission, as with Mandelson, his main aim is just to portray contemporary people regardless of their relative fame.

Friends, and friends of friends, have been happy to lend him their bodies. He appreciates their "huge commitment" but says he tries to make it fun. They chat. "I try to inflict the minimum amount of pain."

He says he is not really a portrait painter, preferring to approach the planes and gradients of the face as a landscape painter would an appealing view (he does landscapes too). What makes his work interesting, he says, is that it is "not just powerful but intimate".

"I look for interesting faces. They're attractive often but in an unconventional way - striking, I'd say. There are certain features, like a forest or a waterfall, that are striking in nature. Humans also have that quality and if I can paint their faces really large, then so much the better. It makes the ordinary extraordinary.

"The head is only one eighth of the body but I paint it on such a huge scale it becomes a different thing."

Nahem Shoa is 35 and with a genealogical make-up reflective of modern Britain. "My father is Jewish, from Yemen, and there's some Ethiopian blood in there too. My mother is half Russian, half Scottish."

Cultural diversity is something he embraces with a passion. Indignantly, he says: "Did you know that in Tate Modern there isn't a single black image and the same can be said of many major collections?"

Artists like Nahem Shoa, with his plethora of prizes and many admirers, are out to rectify this state of affairs and will surely do so.

They are also helping to quash the notion that painting is unfashionable, a dying art even. Nahem says he would like to put his paintings on display next to Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed and let the public decide.

"There are many more figurative shows now," he says. "I'm trying to show people around Britain painting again. This is a statement about painting; I want to show people what is possible and to make them excited."

Giant Heads & Multiculture opens at Hartlepool Art Gallery, Church Square, Hartlepool, on Saturday and runs until June 6.

Admission is free and the gallery opens Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm, and Sunday, 2-5pm. Tel: (01429) 869706.

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