Litian He and Jiafeng He at MAMOTH in London, with a work by Beijing artist Pu Yingwei (b. 1989), A Study in Scarlet The Gentleman of Communist Capitalism, 2021 (detail), and a partial view of

‘Always listen to your heart’: gallerists and collectors Jiafeng and Litian He

As Mamoth presents two exhibitions coinciding with Frieze Week in London, the gallery’s founders reflect on their ‘half intentional, half intuitive’ approach to art and a new generation of Asian collectors with very different tastes from their parents

A grey blanket of cloud has just descended on Bloomsbury in central London, but inside Mamoth, in a five-storey Georgian townhouse on Endsleigh Street, everything is light and airy. ‘That was very much our intention,’ says Jiafeng He, one half of the Shanghai power couple who founded the gallery in 2018.

Jiafeng and Litian He commissioned architects Matheson Whiteley to convert the elegant 18th-century building into a working gallery, excavating the basement to create two intimate white showrooms and a large glass office, and refurbishing the light-filled, high-ceilinged rooms upstairs with pale oak floors.

Installation view of Chilean artist Vicente Matte’s current exhibition, Shadows, at MAMOTH. Photo Eva Herzog. Artwork courtesy of the artist and MAMOTH

Installation view of Chilean artist Vicente Matte’s current exhibition, Shadows, at MAMOTH. Photo: Eva Herzog. Artwork: courtesy of the artist and MAMOTH

Mamoth’s first exhibition opened just before the UK’s Covid lockdowns, with minimal social-media fuss — an unusual approach for a well-connected couple in their early thirties, but very much in keeping with their unshowy personas.

Were people surprised that they chose to set up their gallery in Bloomsbury, largely populated by venture capitalists and university lecture halls, rather than the art-world hub of Fitzrovia? ‘We wanted to do our own thing,’ says Jiafeng, ‘and that would have been harder in an area with a lot of commercial galleries.’

Litian agrees: ‘We come from a very different cultural background, and London is a hub of artistic and literary creativity with mixed cultures. The gallery is surrounded by institutions, collections and art schools, and Bloomsbury’s rich artistic and intellectual history influenced the ethos of the gallery — where we could build a community of artists and collectors with whom we could share our knowledge.’

Litian He and Jiafeng He at MAMOTH, located in a Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, London. Photo Tereza Červeňová

Litian He and Jiafeng He at MAMOTH, located in a Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, London. Photo: Tereza Červeňová

Alongside relationships with institutions in Asia and established private collections from around the world, many of Mamoth’s clients are what Litian describes as ‘second-generation collectors’ — young, highly educated Asians in their thirties, with very different tastes from their parents. ‘They are always excited by the artists we’ve selected,’ she says, ‘and we have a responsibility to them to do our research and choose wisely.’

On the day of my visit the larger galleries are empty, awaiting a shipment of paintings from Canada by Brittany Shepherd for her first solo show in London. ‘Brittany’s British-born grandmother told her that it rains in London all the time, so she has embarked on a site-specific approach,’ says Litian, scrolling through her phone to reveal Photorealist-style paintings of mud-splattered shoes and thin plastic anoraks saturated with rain.

Installation view of Deliverance, an exhibition by the Canadian artist Brittany Shepherd at MAMOTH. Photo Eva Herzog. Artwork courtesy of the artist and MAMOTH

Installation view of Deliverance, an exhibition by the Canadian artist Brittany Shepherd at MAMOTH. Photo: Eva Herzog. Artwork: courtesy of the artist and MAMOTH

In the basement, the couple have just finished hanging works by Vicente Matte, a Chilean artist whose vibrantly coloured paintings allude to his country’s traumatic past. ‘I like work which stretches the boundaries of what it represents, its medium, origins, and aesthetic,’ says Jiafeng, who studied art & politics and museum studies at university. ‘The first artwork I ever bought was by Danh Vo [We The People (Detail), 2011-16], about identity and authorship. Now I’m drawn to my contemporaries. I’m interested in how artists are concerned with human experience and how they embark on a process of rediscovery through visual narratives.’

‘That’s true,’ says Litian, a graduate of Chelsea College of Arts, ‘but the messages do not have to be obvious. It is the way artists use materials and texture to conceal or expose certain ideas that interests me.’

Danh Vo (b. 1975), We The People (Detail), 2011-16. Copper. 96 810 x 83 910 x 15 in. (246 x 213 x 0.5 cm); 145 kg (319.7 lb). © Danh Vo

Danh Vo (b. 1975), We The People (Detail), 2011-16. Copper. 96 8/10 x 83 9/10 x 1/5 in. (246 x 213 x 0.5 cm); 145 kg (319.7 lb). © Danh Vo

They both come from collecting families. ‘My father is a businessman and an art lover,’ says Litian. ‘I grew up with traditional Chinese painting.’ Jiafeng is the son of the collector He Juxing, founder of Start Museum in Shanghai and the Minsheng Contemporary Art Museum. ‘He was a journalist in the 1980s,’ says Jiafeng, ‘when Western ideas about art and philosophy began to filter into the country. It was an exciting time to discover contemporary art.’

Jiafeng is referring to the ’85 New Wave Movement, a period of artistic awakening following the introduction of China’s ‘Open Door’ policy in 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, which freed up foreign trade and investment. Western cultural ideas were disseminated through magazines, books and exhibitions, igniting an explosion of grass-roots art movements across the country.

Today, He Juxing is the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese modern and contemporary art, in addition to a significant holding dedicated to Western artists. Did he offer any advice to the couple? ‘I remember him saying, “Go at your own pace.” A collection is a life-long commitment: it takes time, patience and a lot of research,’ says Litian.

‘I guess you could say our collection is half intentional, half intuitive,’ adds Jiafeng. Have they ever bought anything they’ve regretted? ‘In a word, no,’ he says, describing the shared path of research and discussion before the final decision. ‘We talk to the artist, the gallerist and other professionals, but in the end the key is always listening to your heart.’

Stanislava Kovalcikova, Schiphol, 2019, acquired by Jiafeng He in 2019. Artwork courtesy of the artist

Stanislava Kovalcikova, Schiphol, 2019, acquired by Jiafeng He in 2019. Artwork: courtesy of the artist

The couple devote considerable resources to young artists. Is that risky? ‘Of course,’ says Jianfeng. ‘But we build a relationship, we do a lot of studio visits, because we need to understand their process and know they are committed — and they need to know that we are, too. When we take on an artist, we are in it for the long term, so there has to be trust on both sides.’

The couple’s drawing room is filled with artworks from their own collection. Around the walls are paintings by Pu Yingwei, Rachel Jones and Stanislava Kovalcikova, and sculptures by Hugh Hayden and Michael Dean.

Jiafeng He with works from the couple’s collection by (left to right) Rachel Jones, Lenz Geerk, Rene Matić, Michael Dean and Hugh Hayden. Photo Tereza Červeňová. Artworks © Michael Dean. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London; © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery; Rene Matić. Courtesy The Artist and Arcadia Missa

Jiafeng He with works from the couple’s collection by (left to right) Rachel Jones, Lenz Geerk, Rene Matić, Michael Dean and Hugh Hayden. Photo: Tereza Červeňová. Artworks: © Michael Dean. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London; © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery; Rene Matić. Courtesy The Artist and Arcadia Missa

In the corner is a small figurative work — Insomniac (2019) — by the Dusseldorf-based artist Lenz Geerk. Litian recalls how they flew to Geerk’s studio when their son was just three months old to persuade him to be their first exhibiting artist at the gallery. ‘There is so much interest around him now,’ says Jiafeng with pride.

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‘Now is a very good time to be a young artist in London,’ he says, reeling off a list of names on the couple’s radar including Jarvis Boyland, Henry Curchod, Kaito Itsuki and Julia Adelgren. ‘There’s a lot of exposure, and interest in new generation artists is considerable.’

Brittany Shepherd ‘Deliverance’ and Vicente Matte ‘Shadows’ are on show at MAMOTH until 29 October 2022