“..They either shot you, or they tried to kill you slowly. They tried to kill me slowly, by beatings, torture and madness in solitary confinement. Ten of my ribs were broken and didn’t set properly. My kidneys do not work well because of the beatings. They made me eat shit with a spoon… People say that this has made me wise. Well, I would rather be stupid, and not have had that lesson. I learnt things, but they were all dark things…” Santiago Bell 1986; survivor of the Torture Centres and Concentration Camps: “Isla Quiriquina” and “Regimiento de Chillán”
Santiago Bell Jara was an Anglo-Chilean politician, artist & exile. MAPU founder, Intendente de Ñuble and later Minister for the Peasant Education Programme (Ñuble) for the Allende led UP government.
His vocation as an educator which led him to work with Paolo Friere and philanthropic leanings were none more evident than when fostering over 20 street children in Ñuble with his wife Myriam, some of whom to this day call him ‘papá’. His political and social convictions permeated every part of his life, including his later phase in exile, as an artist.
Santiago Bell was born in 1932 to a Scottish father and Chilean mother, the eldest of a tribe of 11 kids. He became a teacher, married Myriam Marcò and had 5 children. He was originally a Christian Democrat but became disillusioned and helped form the breakaway political party, MAPU.
His home life was equally busy. With the financial aid of the church, Santiago & Myriam set up the Hogar de Cristo children’s home for street kids in the Rosita O’ Higgins, Chillan, however, their unorthodox parenting style was criticised by the church. Refusing to bend to the pressures of the church, Santiago & Myriam went it alone, kept the children that wanted to stay with them and continued to live with their adoptive & biological children in Chillàn.
On September 12th 1973 Santiago was arrested in Chillàn. He was then taken to the Isla Quiriquina where he was held without any formal charges until 1975. Once he was released he joined his family; Myriam, his 5 children and baby granddaughter in Cambridge, England, where he and his family were granted asylum status.
In Cambridge he shared his first UK studio with local artists and held his first arts exhibition at the University of Essex, showing his piece ‘torture chair’. After a few years of adjustment in Cambridge, he briefly moved to Belgium, and then returned to the UK in the early eighties settling in the East End of London.
He described the East End of London as ‘poor but culturally rich’. It was here that he and a group of local artists set up the now world famous Bromley By Bow centre, and where Santiago would create the pieces that catapulted him into the public eye, Fame that he neither wanted nor courted.
If Santiago had ever written an arts manifesto it may have had only one rule! Art is not for sale, nor is it a commodity to be peddled on the markets.
His resistance to fame led many an exasperated agent down a long and frustrating path with the same conclusion; Santiago was adamant in his disinterest. Many influential people visited Santiago’s exhibitions including the late Lady Diana & the Archbishop of Canterbury.
His artistic process was as consequent as his ideals. He scoured skips, construction yards etc for scrap wood which he fashioned into marvellous three dimensional sculptures depicting his experiences and other interpretations of global events. His philosophy was that people, like these scraps of wood, could be invested in and become great.
In his later years he went back to Chile (1993) with his wife Myriam to a small village near Mellipilla, Maria Pinto. Here he set about building a studio, where he continued to sculpt and also gave the local campesinos free English lessons in a classroom he had built within his studios.
He spent 11 happy years in his retirement in Chile but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005. He passed away in his eldest daughter’s home in Hackney, London on the 17th May 2005, surrounded by friends, family and comrades.