Curator Jessica Bell Brown talks taste
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
My personal style signifier is a well designed pair of glasses – my favourites are a hexagon-shaped style from Anne & Valentin. If I have to be visually challenged, I can at least have beautiful glasses.
The last thing I bought and loved was a pair of black St Agni leather sandals that I’m kind of obsessed with. Summer is here in Maryland – and it’s hot.
The works of art that changed everything for me were at Chris Ofili’s 2014 exhibition, Night and Day, at the New Museum in New York. I still think about it; it affirmed for me that magical experiences can happen in museum spaces, and artists are at the centre of that. Also anything by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – her work is like an exhale – and Jennifer Packer; her recent Whitney Museum show was transcendent.
The best book I’ve read in the past year is Hernan Diaz’s Trust, which just won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s an unintentional history of capital, philanthropy and robber barons; it shows you the underworld of America’s elite.
My style icon is Tracee Ellis Ross – or anyone who doesn’t try too hard, who loves clothes but is more interested in shapes, feel and colour. I love that Tracee isn’t afraid of colour. We curators love our blacks and navies, but I live vicariously through her.
The best gift I’ve given recently is a fort-building kit for my son’s fifth birthday. There’s a massive section of our house that’s filled with a bunch of toys. I love the child’s mind in terms of engineering – they see spaces and shapes very differently.
And the best gift I’ve received recently is a pair of Nike Air Jordan 12 Retro SP sneakers designed by A Ma Maniére. They are dedicated to black women. I like being able to tell a story through what I wear and the objects that bring me joy. It took me seven months to wear them – I was conscious of them as a collector’s item – but I’ve been leaning into my inner sneakerhead. I say release the sneaks!
The last music I downloaded was by Masego. His new album has been on repeat in my household; it’s wonderful. He’s a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and also sings, so it’s a little bit of jazz and a little bit of R&B. It’s just very smooth, easy and fun to listen to.
The places that mean a lot to me are bodies of water – oceans, rivers and lakes. I tend to travel to places that have either an ocean or mountains; our last trip to Kenya was amazing because it was the best of both worlds. Martinique is beautiful, as is Portugal, but the most fantastic was Lamu, which sits on the Indian Ocean. It’s where my husband and I learned we were expecting our first child, so it has a special place in my heart.
I have a collection of art books and anything ephemeral in terms of exhibition announcements or cool articles I’ve seen. I’ve kept my Moleskine notebooks from when I was at school, and I keep my notes from studio visits and art talks. I’m building a library for myself: it’s a modest one, but I have a collector’s sensibility when it comes to keeping knowledge. One of my most treasured items is a David Hammons catalogue from an exhibition at New York’s Mnuchin Gallery in 2016. I waited four or five years even to open it because it’s a work of art in itself. Anyone who follows Hammons will know that his work is unparallelled, but his publication history is also significant. He looms so large over the field of contemporary art.
In my fridge you’ll always find Greek yoghurt, spring onions, strawberries, grapefruit, cruciferous vegetables and oat milk. I love cooking, so we’re testing a lot of things out right now. At the moment I’m really into Persian rice, and I’m working on a chocolate tahini granola for my little guys. We keep it interesting here.
I’ve recently rediscovered ceramics, particularly pieces from Baltimore, which is a town of potters. Getting to know the artist Jaye Kim while living in New York led me to think about ceramics not just as beautiful objects, but as things that have utility. So when we arrived in Baltimore I was attuned to the thriving community of ceramicists here. I now have a growing collection of bowls, mugs and glazed objects – I’m obsessed with Milkweed and Personal Best Ceramics.
The things I couldn’t do without are my Nars Powermatte Lip Pigment in Slow Ride – I wear it daily – and an incredible CBD oil roll-on by Sagely Naturals that I wear when I need to de-stress. It’s like a salve.
The last items of clothing I added to my wardrobe were some black T-shirts from Vince, a California-based brand. They’re basic tees that I can go from the gallery to weekend hopping-about in.
An object I would never part with is a ceramic plantain that was a gift from Simone Leigh. It was the moment we learned she was going to be the first black woman to represent the US in the Venice Biennale. That plantain is a marker of time and of the network of joy and celebration for her. It signals a huge community of black women who are lifting each other up in their work.
When I need to feel inspired, I take a long walk. New synapses fire when I’m in nature and can be at one with my thoughts. Near my neighbourhood in Reservoir Hill I have the Cylburn Arboretum and Druid Hill Park, a fantastic, sprawling park in the city.
The beauty staples I’m never without are for my hair. In the winter I rely on Living Proof’s Humidity Shield, but in the summer I like to embrace the humidity. I love anything by Mielle Organics; its leave-in conditioners are a godsend when I want my curls to be out and abundant.
My favourite room in my house is the guest room. It has incredible windows that look out into our neighbourhood, and the energy feels very different to the rest of the house, which is littered with toys and things for two and five-year-olds. My husband dabbles in furniture making, so some of his pieces are kept there – a really cool bench with blue squiggly legs and a bed frame. I like it so much because it has some of the objects that we had in our apartment from New York. It’s the perfect mix of past and present.
An indulgence I would never forgo is having a candlelit bath once a week when the house is quiet; it keeps me sane. I love a fennel and pine candle by Threshold that has a crackling wood wick – there’s a kind of sonic relaxation that happens with that sound. My son hates candles so every time he sees me light one he’ll go behind my back and blow it out. But once he’s in bed, the bath is run and the candle is lit.
My favourite buildings are Gilded Age mansions, which maybe goes back to my interest in Hernan Diaz’s novel Trust. You find them dotted around the north-east from New York to Pittsburgh – and even here in Baltimore, particularly in the Mount Vernon neighbourhood. I’m interested in late-19th- and early-20th-century excess and ornamentation – there must be so many stories between those walls.
My beauty guru is Brooke DeVard Ozaydinli, who has a podcast called “Naked Beauty”. She’s super-stylish and her look comes across as effortless. Another micro-influencer I like is Chanel Tyler. She’s not afraid to try new things for women who have pigmented skin, whom the beauty industry has ignored for so long. Brooke and Chanel are righting those wrongs.
My favourite websites are the obligatory art world publications like Artforum, Art in America, ARTnews and Artnet. 4Columns is pretty extraordinary in its criticism, and the Baltimore Beat is doing phenomenal work. It’s a free, black-led newspaper making waves here in the city.
The best bit of advice I’ve ever received was always to be in relation, to prioritise relationships over transactions. I can’t remember who told me – I think it was Thelma Golden, who I deeply admire – but I’ve sat with it ever since.