For ISSUE#2 of CON.TEXT we interviewed gallerist Jack Bell. Jack Bell Gallery, located in Mason’s Yard, London, is notable for it’s focus on contemporary African art. We were interested in this national focus at a time when nationalism is becoming harder and harder to define. With the theme PROCESS in mind, we also looked towards the practicalities of being a gallerist, selecting and curating work.
CON.TEXT: How did your interest in contemporary art from this geographical area emerge?
JACK BELL: To begin with, I had been following studio photography coming out of Mali and painting coming from DR Congo. The work seemed to represent a part of the world that was changing shape at incredible pace. The art from a younger generation here seemed very contemporary yet simultaneously tied to cultural traditions. In my mind this made for very rich work.
CT: As one of the few galleries focused on showing contemporary African art in the United Kingdom, to what extent does your gallery take on a social responsibility by curating and displaying contemporary African art in London?
JB: The gallery has been running for 3 and half years now. From the beginning, I have gravitated towards art that is politically and socially engaged. I put together exhibition of work by artists I believe in. That fact that international museums and major private collections have picked up on what we are doing has paved the way for the work’s wider exposure.
CT: What has been the process behind finding the artists that you represent?
JB: It’s about spending time on the ground. Porto-Novo or Abomey, Bamako, Djenné and Timbuktu are all places with immense cultural heritage and well known art hubs. Be that as it may, there is very little infrastructure for art and its dissemination which makes first hand contact with artists essential. I spend time in these places to develop relationships with the artists, both old and young. It is also very important to see the quality of the work with your own eyes and understand the steps in the creative process.
CT: Can you explain briefly the process behind planning an exhibition at your gallery?
JB: We tend to take a long view of things, over a 5 to 10 year period. We hope to establish and develop an artist’s career, so often a first exhibition at the gallery is only an initial platform from which we take momentum. We will see work which we think fits in with our program and is speaking a certain language. The works will most likely be located on the African continent so we will need to negotiate shipping and customs clearance which can be complicated. Once in the UK the works will need to be framed, stretched and shot professionally. In the lead up to a show we will put together a piece of writing that gives our interpretation of the work. This will be used when contacting press, museum curators and collectors we think may take an interest. We will organise a private view to open the show – An exhibition generally runs for the duration of a month or so. As soon as one is open we are already co-ordinating the next.
CT: Do you feel context and location change how you see art?
JB: I think good art will stand up in all contexts.
Interview conducted: July 2013