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The Culture Interview: José Nava, artist

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José Nava, 79, was a fisherman in Mexico until he came to Britain in 1962 where he joined the wild and wonderful theatre group, The People Show. He still does occasional performances with them. For many years, he has also been reclusively producing bold, colourful paintings as well as drawings. Entirely and proudly self-taught, he is having his very first exhibition Fish Out of Water at The Koppel Project in Baker St, London from November 29th.

Are you a fish out of water?

In the film, my son, Zadoc made about me in 1997, I talk about myself as ‘a fish in the wrong pond’ but in this exhibition, I am talking about the many fishermen that I paint. I have always felt that being Mexican, I was treated like an exotic person, sometimes I have not been happy about that.

War Scene Green SkyWar Scene Green Sky - Jose Nava

How do you feel about this being your first art show at 79?

Well, I have sold paintings, I just haven’t had an exhibition. I should get excited but I’m too old to feel excited really. I suppose I don’t really believe it until it happens.

What does painting mean to you?

The same as performing did. For me, it’s doing things that I need to do. I love being able to paint when I want to. That means a lot to me. I do it because it’s my choice, there is no-one making me do it. And it keeps me sane in a world where I feel despair where there are drownings, wars and so many other things that I don’t like. I prefer nature.

Do you still paint and live in a ‘shed’ in Kentish Town.

I made that shed. It had completely collapsed and I re-built it. I still paint and draw there but I live with my partner of 17 years, Amanda Hon, in Maida Vale these days.

Do you ever go back to Mexico?

No, because I have a silly illness, which means that I can’t go far. I went back with my son Zadoc twenty years ago to make the short film about my life Big Fish.

Couple at Table (Blue Man) Couple at Table (Blue Man) - Jose Nava

How many paintings have you done?

Hundreds but they’re small so that they all fit into my shed.

How has the ageing process been for you?

When I’m feeling well, I feel just the same, when I’m unwell, I feel old. I suppose that I don’t rush about now as much as I used to so that I take time to see the leaves turning brown, watch the sun going down. Simplicity is the mother of invention.

Do you have a philosophy of dying?

No. All I know is that I was born and that I’m going to die. After death, I haven’t a clue about that.

Have you planned your funeral?

Not really but I don’t want to go into an oven, I want to be buried under a tree.

If you were a fish, what kind of fish would you be?

I’d be a free fish, one that wasn’t caught by a bigger fish or a net.

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