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Conversation  |  Owner & Director of the Jack Bell Gallery, London

Jack Bell

In Conversation
20 November 2012

Jack Bell Gallery in London specialises in contemporary art from Sub-Saharan Africa. Following graduation from the Masters Program at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Jack spent 3 years working for Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, honing his experience in the contemporary art market.

In 2010 he joined forces with a group of up-and-coming young dealers and curators and opened a gallery for contemporary art in London's Victoria.  In 2011 he moved to his own new premises in the prestigious Masons Yard in St James's. Tipped early on as one to watch, Jack Bell Gallery has rapidly established a reputation for interesting, quality and unexpected art.

What's your background and involvement in art?

I came over to London to do an MA at the Courtauld Institute. Soon after I started working for Timothy Taylor Gallery where I spent 3 years. In Feb 2010 I opened my own space with a particular interest in contemporary art from Sub-Saharan Africa.

How did you become interested in African art?

I'd been following the CAAC Pigozzi Collection which was putting together a really lively bunch of work by African artists working across the continent. The painting, photography and sculpture seemed really vibrant. It engaged with its surroundings, was often political or social commentary. It reflected a part of the world that was changing shape at an incredible pace. All this was exciting and I couldn't wait to get over there.

You are a very young dealer forging your way in a difficult market and an expensive city. Have the more established galleries been supportive of what you are doing? Do you have any mentors?

The gallery is a kind of launch pad for artists I'm working with in Africa. Often they have never been shown outside of their local environment so it's always really encouraging when the contemporary art world here responds and embraces them. It's a great opportunity for some of these artists to be shown in an international context on the walls of the Saatchi Gallery for example. Working for the Timothy Taylor Gallery was a fantastic experience. It's a great program that crosses over both respected and established artists and emerging edgy ones. André Magnin, the Parisian dealer, has put together an amazing stable of artists and done a huge amount to put contemporary art from Africa on the map.

Taking into account the large African communities in London, it is interesting that African art has not enjoyed greater popularity in the same way that there has been increasing awareness in France and America? Why do you think this is?

Hard to say - Dealers in New York like Jack Shainman have been on the case for a long time. The Studio Museum in Harlem likewise. But it does seem to be changing now and the heavy hitters in London like White Cube and Hauser & Wirth are picking up on African artists.

You have created a niche for yourself in specalising in African art - there must be challenges inherent in this, especially as it is an emerging market?

I think regardless of where these artists are from, they are good contemporary artists. The collectors and museum curators who have been very supportive tend to be from a background of contemporary art rather than any particular niche in African art.

Africa has always had a strong tribal art and craft art component, how does the emerging contemporary art market sit alongside this?

The contemporary work from Africa is very interesting because there is a younger generation who are registering this period of immense change. They have a lot to say and the work is very current. At the same time, the art has ties to cultural heritage and traditions which make it very rich work. Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou is a good example.

How do you find your artists?

I get over to Africa about every three months. I've spent most time on the ground in West Africa.

How do you find working with your artists? The phenomenal increase in awareness of, and prices for, contemporary art means that artists often have unrealistic expectations? Do you experience such lofty ambitions in dealing with your artists?

Sometimes - But more often I am dealing with art that seems relatively accessible in the contemporary market. The work is top notch quality, it has depth and packs a punch - yet young people in film, fashion, music or the art world etc can afford to collect it. I'm sure this won't always be the case.

In the second half of the 20th Century the African continent has suffered enormously from violent conflict. Does conflict stimulate great art?

I have come across a couple of artists who are making strong work as a result of war. Aboudia I found during the civil war early last year in Ivory Coast. His paintings were a direct response to the crisis that was erupting on his door step. His works will be included in the upcoming exhibition entitled Painters' Painters at Saatchi gallery, London. Gonçalo Mabunda is based in Maputo, Mozambique - He is making sculpture out of decommissioned arms from the civil war which tore apart is country until 1992. His pieces have been exhibited at the Pompidou, Paris, Hayward Gallery, London, and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Other emerging markets - where else are you seeing interesting art?

Brazil. Can't wait to get over to Sao Paulo. Big scene for street artists among other things.

Greatest art moments?

Anselm Kiefer at White Cube, Bermondsey.

What is on your wish list?

Art fairs and publications — [ O ]


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