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Music proved the food of ‘life’ for Nelly Duff

Published: 16/02/2021

If I was going to pick a scenic day to interview the art curator and co-founder of one of East London’s most treasured galleries, Nelly Duff, I nailed it. As we sit in one of the studio spaces, socially distanced by a red formica table, snow cascades relentlessly down on Columbia Road.

Cassius Colman does not look like your archetypal curator; there is no suit, silk scarf, or handkerchief. Immediately warm and welcoming, totally unpretentious; he is the antithesis of what we have come to expect. Am I surprised, no, after all Nelly Duff has been influencing our walls for coming up to 15 years now with original Street, Tattoo and Graphic Art.

So how did you come across Columbia Road all those years ago?

“We actually bought it blind. We were renting a flat above a shop further up the street and noticed a board had gone up, this is when Rightmove wasn’t a thing so you literally were guided by ‘signs’. We arranged to view but then the agent discovered he’d lost the keys.”

I can’t help but wince. Jokes about estate agents and keys come flooding to mind. It takes will power but I resist the urge and go on to ask, so you never saw inside?

“No, we knew the properties were all pretty similar and it’s where we wanted to be so we went for it. We really connected with the area; I believe there were more artists per capita than the whole of Europe living in the East End at that point. It had and still has a phenomenal energy.”

Originally a Director/Producer, he and his partner Jessie who worked in publishing started collecting limited additions 2 years before they set up Nelly Duff, but it was the night life in Hoxton Square that proved their greatest resource for up-and-coming talent.

“Hoxton Square had a massive music scene, in 2002 I’d spend my nights dancing to acid jazz and drum and bass mixing with street artists and creatives and by day pursuing and persuading the local (international) pioneers of this explosive new street art genre, to engage in prints.”

It’s no wonder that when the shop first opened with only 20 artworks, they sold out the same day. Cassius and Jessie had captured the zeitgeist of the time and ran with it. So how do you hold on to that status 15 years on? Nelly Duff is more popular now than ever - what has kept you relevant?

“We pride ourselves on always striving for creative excellence, we nurture and provide structure for artists enabling them to flourish. We are always on the lookout for new work that can generate that euphoric rush. There is nothing more uplifting than seeing people strolling off the street on a Sunday and discovering a piece of art that speaks to them.”

How has your business coped during lockdown?

“We were lucky as we already had an online presence, so we could focus on exhibiting new art via our socials and website. What was exciting was collaborating with our artists to increase our limited-edition releases to 2 times a week. One on Wednesday at 6pm and the other on Saturday at 11am”
I imagine this must feel like the alternative to a launch only without the canapes and wine but equally exciting for enthusiasts.  

So, what does 2021 hold for you?

“Depending on the Covid situation, we are hoping to start exhibiting again in late April and we are planning to refurbish the gallery space, so when people return, it will feel refreshed and hopefully add a sense of theatre and expectation to our customers. We are also working with an Italian artist, Run, who is doing various large-scale murals on a lido and leisure centre in Cambridge in conjunction with the Fitzwilliam Museum. And of course, it’s our 15th anniversary in November so we are looking forward to marking it with a big celebration.”

Let’s hope there won’t be any need for social distancing then! From talking to Cassius it’s very apparent that the reason the gallery remains relevant is because they still passionately believe in reactionary art that evokes a response. Given all that we have been through in the past year, isn’t that what we all want? Something that generates change.  

 Nelly Duff is situated on 156 Columbia Road, London, E2 7RG