A London Curator’s Art-Filled City Sanctum

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A London Curator’s Art-Filled City Sanctum

Words by Ms Lili Göksenin | Photography by Ms Tami Aftab | Styling by Mr Charlie Schneider-Jacobson

9 April 2024

Ms Ranjani Shettar, “Cloud Songs On The Horizon”, 2023. Courtesy of Barbican Centre, KNMA and Ranjani Shettar

Mr Shanay Jhaveri has one of those CVs that reads like a “fantasy career” manifesto. Brown University for undergrad, PhD at the Royal College of Art, then on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to become the assistant curator of international art. In 2022, Jhaveri was named the head of visual arts for London’s Barbican Centre, the multi-disciplinary arts complex (the largest of its kind in Europe) known as much for its imposing physical presence as its championing of new artists and public events.

He also lives in the Barbican Estate – the large brutalist residential complex in a part of London that was destroyed by the Blitz during WWII – which was designed in the 1960s, built in the 1970s and opened in the 1980s with, according to Jhaveri, “immense aspiration by the city of London to build a progressive residential estate, which would have at the heart of it an arts centre”.

This “belief in a utopian progressive future” resulted in three towers, 13 terrace blocks and two mews, all built around verdant gardens and immense water features. The attached arts centre has four pillars: visual arts, film, music and theatre. Jhaveri oversees the first, curating exhibitions for the two main spaces, the Art Gallery and The Curve. “The Curve space hosts two shows a year, mainly invitations to artists who haven’t had the opportunity to show in London at a significant scale,” Jhaveri says.

“One of my priorities has been to take the programme beyond the discreet two exhibition spaces and to engage the building directly and public spaces,” he says. That means integrating the estate even further with the art centre, bringing artwork outside into the public gardens to be enjoyed by the community.

Jhaveri launched this endeavour last September with a commission by the Indian sculptor Ms Ranjani Shettar in the complex’s Conservatory. Later this spring, the Ghanaian artist Mr Ibrahim Mahama will transform the exterior of the Barbican’s Lakeside Terrace in a commission titled “Purple Hibiscus” (named for Ms Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name).

“I took my cue from the fact that I’m living in an incredible modernist icon”

The massive and “muscular” space of the Barbican serves as inspiration to Jhaveri, who counts himself lucky to inhabit one of the flats in the estate. He lives in a three-bedroom apartment that he rents and did not come parcelled up with his job offer (though that would have been a lovely perk).

From left: Ms Huma Bhabha, “Waldemar”, 2006. Courtesy of Huma Bhabha and David Zwirner Gallery. Mr Riten Mozumdar, “Dinata Belay”, c.1985. Courtesy Chatterjee & Lal and Heirs of Riten Mozumdar

“When I got the job, I considered where I would stay in London, and I thought, ‘When else would I have the opportunity to stay in an architectural icon like the Barbican?’” he says “I am now fully immersed.”

Not only does it make his commute a cinch, but the building has a spirit to it that radiates into the living spaces.

“I’ve begun to very much appreciate the immense care and heart that went into the crafting of these residential apartments and buildings,” he says. “They were driven by an ideological purpose and determination, and you can really sense that. The proportions have a modernist sensibility. The buildings are brutalist, but they have receptions and concierges, and the way they are organised, the attention to detailing, all the wood panelling, the armatures… It’s all extremely well designed and considered.”

The estate’s mid-century finishes have informed Jhaveri’s own take on interior design. Sparse and uncluttered, his home features art by Indian and South Asian artists, many from the mid 20th century.

“I took my cue from the fact that I’m living in an incredible modernist icon,” he says. “It’s a privilege to live in a flat that has been designed with such care and thought.”

As an example, he cites perhaps the most defining feature of the buildings: “All the concrete at the Barbican was bush hammered – it was hand textured and finished by a team of men.”

To complement the original brass finishes, pinewood floors and teak framing, Jhaveri has placed two chairs by Ms Mini Boga, an influential Indian furniture designer who established her brand Taaru in New Delhi in the 1960s, in the living room beneath artwork by Mr Riten Mozumdar. Elsewhere, a photograph by Ms Nasreen Mohamedi, an artist who came of age in the 1960s, is displayed as a cherished possession.

“One doesn’t feel the need to make changes. I’m a custodian of the space until the next person takes it on”

“I wanted the work to be of the period and reflect the sensibility of the Barbican,” Jhaveri says. The bones of the flat he has left largely untouched. “One doesn’t feel the need to make changes. I’m a custodian of the space until the next person takes it on.”

He wasn’t always so drawn to the clean, stark lines exemplified by this London complex.

“When I was at the Met, I was in the modern and contemporary department, which was led by Sheena Wagstaff,” he says. “We were able to make shows and have possession of the Breuer building on Madison Avenue. At that moment, I got sensitised and began to appreciate mid 20th-century modernist brutalist architecture. I got to really think about the potential that these spaces can offer.”

The jungle-like gardens are yet another unique facet of life at the Barbican. The conservatory is open to the public and features artwork – curated by Jhaveri. But the estate also features private gardens only available to residents. “It’s a real joy to have access to them,” he says. “They’re quite special and architecturally distinctive.”

For someone so personally attuned to the vibrations and potential of space, Jhaveri has his work cut out for him in this hulking giant of a London landmark and he has no immediate plans to up sticks. Why would he?

“My energies are very focused on the Barbican and being able to shape a programme and build a team,” he says. “I inherited a very strong history of programming. I’m now thinking about our audiences more intentionally and where the programmes should go. We’re returning [the Barbican] to its interdisciplinary roots.”