‘Family matters’ means something different to everyone. Perhaps you think that it's an objective statement that family is important, or you might think it's the diplomatic name for messy, tangled home issues. If you're an Urkel fan, then maybe you first jump to the beloved sitcom of the same name. In any case, family elicits many a reaction. In her new exhibit at Mama from July 5th-7th, The Room that Shared, artist Shanti Bell explores just this.
It’s an unconventional sculpture show in which Bell invites viewers to directly engage with the works by touching or even being held by them. In this way, the sculptures aren't just art pieces to be distantly considered and evaluated, but objects that we should –and must– engage with directly, much like family.
In speaking to Bell, you'll find, as expected, that she's a creative mind, perpetually buzzing with new ideas and approaches. But she's also thoughtful, and carefully considers what her art could mean to different people. Thanks to this, her interactive art doesn't stay trapped in the esoteric realm of performance art and actually moves its audience. I had the chance to sit down with her to chat about her latest exhibit, favourite ways to decompress, and upcoming projects.
How I have always been “We’re very independent individuals and we don’t come together. Actually only in recent years a little bit.” 2024
Hi Shanti! Let's start with a quick intro – tell us a bit about yourself and your art.
As a multidisciplinary artist, wearable sculpture practitioner, and maker, my creative journey revolves around crafting expressive and resonant moments and experiences which are a reflection of life. Through my work, I look to creatively navigate emotions, delve into the intricacies of human connections, and explore the ever-evolving dynamics of family and personal relationships. I engage with various mediums including: sound, performance, sculpture, furniture, and sculpture-wear. Collaboration is a constant thread throughout my practice, as I explore the overlap of different mediums and working alongside other creatives to together create a layering of artistic expressions.
In my artistic practice, I allow the concept to guide the creative process, allowing for a multilayered exploration of humanity and lived experiences by going beyond the surface. Rather than seeking a single moment, I aim to weave together a series of moments that invite audiences to connect, question, and reflect. By presenting work that resonates with the essence of living, I hope to offer viewers an opportunity to discover a piece of themselves within it, that also touches on our shared existence.
How does your training in Fashion Print inform your current artistic practice?
The training I received whilst studying at Fashion Print at Central Saint Martins allowed me to really deepen my appreciation and attention to the human body. I was given the space to fully understand garment construction from flat pattern cutting to toiling on mannequins and then experimenting with colour and texture through print. Understanding the relationship the body can have with fabric and the numerous techniques of construction that allow it to be enhanced or held is something I have found paramount to how I approach creating in my artistic practice today.
When designing sculpture, I think about the negative space that surrounds it and how it will occupy a room, what does it compel the body to do as you navigate the piece and how can it interact with the body. Training in Print also developed a rich understanding of colour and texture. I often find myself spending days debating between the nuances of different colours and the sensations that different textures create.
I see on your Instagram that you use a variety of different materials in your sculptures, like fabric, wood, and even people. What role does each piece play in your work? Do you find yourself drawn to one material over the other in some sculptures?
Within my practice, the concepts I explore are driven by emotions and differing human connections allow the concept to drive the choices behind materials and mediums in order to remain authentic in my approach and ensure the concept reads true to the output. With fabric being a material I was trained to use, there is that sense of familiarity that I find it offers; I know how it moves and how to construct and manipulate it. With that, I also find there are boundaries that I like to push with this familiar space—pushing what is known into the unknown.
However, within this current project, one of the materials I am working with for the first time is foam, and with that I have found a purely naïve approach has taken the lead. This has created positive challenges when sculpting with this material, as I am constantly learning in the process how it behaves. Each material I use offers the fluctuating role of me pushing its boundaries and in turn it pushing mine creatively. There isn’t one single material that I am particularly drawn to, more so a continued search for both what is familiar and unfamiliar.
“By presenting work that resonates with the essence of living, I hope to offer viewers an opportunity to discover a piece of themselves within it, that also touches on our shared existence.”
Your work often challenges the static nature of sculpture as a medium. In this particular exhibit, you combine dynamic artistic elements with the idea of family structure. What draws you to the duality of rigidity and fluidity? Why do you think it's important to overlay one with the other?
Family dynamics have been a thread through my practice, as we all constantly feel its push and pull. I am a direct observer of how turbulent it often is and became interested in explore it creatively. I see sculpture as the body and humans as pieces of sculpture, our experiences and interactions are moments of being sculpted and moulded, formed and shaped by life. Sculpture isn’t static but emotional and personified, and I wanted to challenge myself to ensure that this was felt within this project through blurring the boundaries of human touch and interaction with the pieces.
Often, gallery spaces offer a space for you to observe and interpret using solely your eyes. However, The Room that Shared invites you to understand what it is like to be held by that sculpture you are observing, what does it feel like to rest in that sculpture, to become one with it. That line between rigidity and fluidity isn’t something I see, but more of a blurring of the two, and I seek to constantly be dipping into both sides of those spaces.
Would you describe yourself as a more structured or easygoing person? Do you find yourself balancing the two qualities in your personal life?
I would definitely say I am a combination of the two and fluctuate between them both depending on the situation. Some things I’m really easygoing about and chilled, and then other times I zero in on really specific details and have about three to-do lists on the go. Having a strong eye for detail I find lends itself to bring out my more structured side.
However, over the course of developing my creative practice, I have sought out more of a work-life balance and have spent the past couple of years defining what type of lifestyle I want outside of my creative space. Making time to eat healthier, exercise, see the sky, be present with my family and friends—naturally these things slowly start to slide as deadlines get closer with work, but one thing I try to maintain is checking in and giving myself grace. A big shift that I have focused on implementing is not striving for perfection at every juncture and letting things be how they need to be. I think having this mentality has really helped with the balance of initially being quite a structured person to now having more of an easy going approach.
The title of this exhibit, The Room that Shared, is quite enigmatic. What do you think is being shared? Do you want the viewers to experience the room together or individually?
What was interesting is Sarah Green, the founding Director of Mama, commented on the fact that the title is in past tense. Reflecting on that I find really speaks to what this project is—it is a moment in time and a space to share, and then be reflected on. Something that is fleeting and often taken for granted is the nuances of family interactions; we often operate with the belief that family members are a constant and due to this and their ability to receive us in all our forms, we can overlook the special and rare moments.
This exhibition is a home in which we are all welcome and share together. The sculptures are to be held and will hold you—there will be moments where people will find themselves sat next to strangers, or being engulfed by a layer of foam and disappearing behind it. It is both a collective and individual experience in which we are all at home.
Free to fall “I kind of like that they’re into life. I feel like my family are into life which is cool.” 2024
When interviewing people for The Room that Shared, you found that family often allows us to discover ourselves through others. How do elements of the exhibit portray that?
When interviewing people, I found that there were many overlaps with emotional histories. Family matters can sometimes be taboo—what happens at home, stays at home. This state of individualism is encouraged in society. What also became apparent in the interviews is that what someone may have lacked in their family situation, another had in abundance and vice versa. My hopes are within the space the audience find moments of connection and resonance. Varying perspectives are understood, empathy is shared and feelings are felt. Sitting offers a moment of contemplation in many ways. The body is still so the mind can wonder. My hope for this exhibition is that people have a space to discover themselves within the context of family through the interaction of the sculptures.
What have you learned about yourself from what your family tells you?
That I’m a mixture of both courageous and outrageous. And that I’m stubborn in a healthy way. I think I am still in the process of learning to believe the qualities my family sees and communicates in me—my mum will say how incredibly the project is shaping, but for me, I would still see how much work I need to do and all the areas to improve. So in a roundabout way, I have learnt that I am still a work in progress and an increase in self-belief is constantly pending.
What are your favourite ways to ground and get back in touch with yourself?
The simplicity of catching the bus home after working in the workshop all day. I find there’s really something in putting headphones on and using that commute to not think about what I’m working on and just tune into real life. Taking that time to be present with all the nuances of London allows me to recontextualise my practice. I may have spent the whole day draping with foam or sculpting a piece of wood with an intense amount of concentration, and then tuning into the world just allows the work to be part of the day and something I’ll tackle again tomorrow.
“This exhibition is a home in which we are all welcome and share together. The sculptures are to be held and will hold you.”
You say that this exhibit seeks to challenge tradition. Which conventions do you try to subvert here and why?
It is about breaking that barrier of touch and pushing the boundaries of how art can be received—creating spaces of inclusion. There isn’t one way to experience work, and yet many galleries are set up the same. I often explore ways to challenge what already exists and offer something new. By inviting people to take off their shoes when entering the exhibition and step onto the carpeted floor allows a grounding in a public space, which is rare. People from all different paths are on equal footing here, in socked or bare feet.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with us?
Currently, my focus has been on my solo show The Room that Shared. Beyond that, I usually take some time away from intense making and do smaller projects. However, my next upcoming project is going to be a dance-oriented project exploring the relationship of sculpture and the body in a moving space through wearable sculpture, kinetic sculpture, lighting design and sound. My hopes are to present this in 2025 and collaborate with a team of dancers.
Whole and complicated “Now you come back and they're accepting you, like loving arms.” 2024
Whole and complicated “Now you come back and they're accepting you, like loving arms.” 2024
Closeness happened “I think it’s probably cultural as well, but it’s like we feel very forced and very obliged to have to do things as a unit.” 2024
Closeness happened “I think it’s probably cultural as well, but it’s like we feel very forced and very obliged to have to do things as a unit.” 2024
Free to fall “I kind of like that they’re into life. I feel like my family are into life which is cool.” 2024
Over stepping, stepping back “She’s really great at giving, very hard at receiving. She’s trying.” 2024