It is a typical bustling Sunday afternoon on Brick Lane. With market-stall traders peddling their wares, tourists sampling the local cuisines and buskers providing light entertainment, it is business as usual.
But away from the din, towards the less glamorous Bethnal Green Road, a man sits quietly at the back of a simple room noticeable on the street only by the delicate art pieces hanging in the window.
He is Carlos de Lins and he is watching over the Espacio Gallery. Friendly and animated, he is keen to talk to passers-by.
De Lins is the gallery director for the space, owned and run by a collective of some 100 artists. The group came up with the idea after spending many years renting expensive gallery spaces around London. “We host a wide range of art work, from sculptures and printmaking to abstract art, figurative art and photography,” says De Lins. “It took us about two years to get here and we opened in May this year. Usually galleries and artists are kept separate, so what we are doing is quite unique.”
Recent exhibitions include works from Nick Hazzard, whose abstract paintings are regularly seen around East London, figurative oil-painter Liz Whiteman Smith and Mexican multi-disciplinary artist Judith Bielotto.
De Lins was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil and spent 15 years living in Italy before coming to London to take an art course. “Sao Paulo is a huge city with tall buildings,” he says. “I love modern architecture; the straight shapes, the glass, the concrete. In London, I find that I am drawn to the skyline of Canary Wharf. My art reflects all of that by using geometric shapes. It is very urban but I also use a bit of Brazilian colour – bright reds, blues – in the work.”
His collective ethos is clear and unwavering. “We don’t have a commercial take on this, we just cover the running costs. We know how hard it is for artists to exhibit their work,” says De Lins. “We share all of the expenses; the rent and the business rates. We print invitations and flyers and we advertise on the internet. It might take a while but we believe in it.”
The gallery’s approach to curation is inherently egalitarian, with the artists taking turns to exhibit their work in small groups. “For each show we come up with a different theme using different artists,” De Lins explains. “We promote each exhibition individually.”
The location on Bethnal Green Road is within a stones’ throw of Brick Lane and Liverpool Street and right in the middle of the burgeoning East London arts scene. But nearby Redchurch Street is undergoing a transformation and rents are increasing in the area. “When the area becomes too expensive, the artists get kicked out,” he explains. “Hoxton used to be quite run down and plenty of artists had studios there but now we can’t afford it. Artists are moving further out towards Hackney Wick now. Some landlords won’t rent out to artists at all; there seems to be a funny idea attached to art. We are just normal people like everyone else.”
The latest exhibition ‘Roots and Rifts’, curated by Anna Cotterill, focuses on the theme of foreigners living abroad. The artists are from all over the world and include Brazilians, French, Italians as well as British. “The artists’ work reflects the fact that they have all lived abroad at some point,” says De Lins. “You end up changing your culture and integrating new things into your life. I have lived in Brazil, Italy and England so I have three cultures now!”
Siomara Jubert, whose mother is taking part in the exhibition, agrees. “My mother’s art has definitely been influenced by living abroad,” she says. “She’s released herself a lot more. She says she felt really free in London.”
The next exhibition is called ‘Harmony’. Running for three weeks until July 24, its theme is on the artists’ collective and the need for cooperation. “We needed to find a way of working together, so that’s where the theme of ‘harmony’ came from,” says De Lins. “With 100 people involved, it required a lot of compromise. And, as gallery director, I have to remain impartial and think about the collective as a whole.”
After that the gallery will host ‘Collage in Silence’, a film by Renee Rilexie, from July 26 – 30. A painter and also part of the collective, Rilexie is entering the world of film documentary for the first time. She incorporates her painting tradition into the work. “Renee brought together five artists to paint in silence over a period of three days. It’s a fantastic documentary,” says De Lins.
The road to Espacio has been a long one, not without its hurdles. “Art is an expensive hobby; you invest your passion, time and money and usually you get back very little in financial terms,” De Lins explains. But despite the struggles, he is hopeful. “We don’t do it for the money. Everyone has a picture on the wall. What would the world be like without art? It would be grey and sad.”
Espacio Gallery, 159 Bethnal Green Road, E2 7DG; www.espaciogallery.com
By Leila Zerai