Testament to the Instagram culture that we live in, this summer, while flicking through a regular feed of art images, I fell in love with a particular work by Italian multimedia artist Maïmouna Guerresi. Her delicate narrative, with just one lone figure accentuated by rich red tones reminded me of a Renaissance painting.
Born in Italy to a religious Catholic family, she converted to Islam with a strong Sufi-orientation, a theme that is most prevalent in her work. Just a few minutes after I hit “repost” to advertise Guerresi’s beautiful work, I received a message from Mariane Ibrahim, a gallerist based in Seattle, detailing the story of the artist’s work, her spiritual line of thought and the mysticism that can be found in her work. Ibrahim’s exuberant energy could immediately be felt across the ether. Her passionate dedication to her artist’s work has given her international recognition as a pioneer for the African art scene.
If you love African contemporary art, then you will have heard the buzzwords “Mariane Ibrahim”. From Accra and Dubai to New York and London, everyone in the “scene” will have at some point crossed paths with Ibrahim.
Operating out of a space on 608 Second Avenue in Seattle, the gallery was founded in 2012 in order to showcase works by contemporary artists from places that have been historically underrepresented on the international stage. Two such regions are the Middle East and Africa.
Ayana V. Jackson. Labouring under the sign of the future. 2017. Archival pigment print on German etching paper. 110x110cm.
A recurrent theme for Ibrahim is the disruption of political borders and how it has affected people’s lives. A product herself of multiple places, Ibrahim firmly states that New Caledonia, where she was born, is a not the place that defines her. “I don’t consider myself to be French aboriginal,” she says in her lively American accent. “My parents are from Somalia, I was raised in Somalia and then we lived in France, and then I studied in the UK and in Canada, and now I live in the US. All of these different places have built and continue to build and influence me and my relationship to people, spaces and to the world.”
Travelling is something that Ibrahim has been forced to accept since a young age. “I have been both a migrant and immigrant.” Her enigmatic personality and African visage is immediately welcoming to all that she’s with. “I am usually by myself—the only woman and the only black at art fairs in the West. Some people even ask me if that is me on the walls of my gallery. I laugh and say, ‘No, that’s Ayana Jackson, maybe we look alike.’” But Ibrahim doesn’t care. What she is fostering through her gallery is an appreciation for underrepresented artists, largely from Africa.
“I started the gallery for reasons of misrepresentation,” she emphasises. “I began as an agent, then became a collector but I wanted to do more. I realised the spaces I would visit to view art didn’t have the artists I wanted to see.
The urge to create a space derived from that frustration. I felt to juxtapose young, emerging and mid-career artists, African, non-African artists, men and especially women; to make possible the coexistence in a space and not be a gallery that would only do African or not do African. I did not want to create a space where what I am is what I show. My space reflects a place where conversations start.”
Today dealers can be artists, curators, agents—all terms that are often used interchangeably in the art world. “It is very important to remember that running an art gallery is running a business and in that sense it is also what business and marketing tools you can take to go market the artists that make the gallery to the world.”
At last year’s Armory Show she won the Presents section prize—the first award the fair had given in its 23-year history. The $10,000 prize covered the cost of a gallery’s booth, thus allowing a young gallery to offer an exceptional exhibition—one that featured the works of German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku—free of charge.
At this year’s Armory Show, Ibrahim will stage artworks by British-Liberian artist, Lina Iris Viktor in an installation, entitled The Black Ark where gold paintings are encapsulated into a black mashrabiya reflecting on ideas related to black excellence, magic and beauty.
Maïmouna Guerresi. Red Trampoline. 2016. Lamda print on Dijon. 200x82.52cm.
At the upcoming Art Dubai, she will display the work of Opoku—an artist working heavily in textile that Ibrahim feels serves as a strong link to both Africa and the Middle East.
At her Seattle space in October 2017 she planned to show the work of Iranian multimedia artist Negar Farajiani. Working in graphic design, painting and installation, her work explores the idea of public and private spaces. It was a show that was scheduled before the travel ban during the Trump administration, when there were signs of the US opening to Iran and vice versa.
The exhibition affected Ibrahim’s programming as she didn’t know whether it could or could not happen. Instead she exhibited Farajiani’s work at Artissima in November 2017. While it is not part of her gallery’s role to be overtly political, Ibrahim feels a duty to enable artists to take part in these difficult socio-political discussions: “I always will support and stand by my artists.”
With an ever-growing roster of up-and-coming as well as established names, a few of Ibrahim’s current art stars are Mustapha Azeroual, Kudzanai, Ayana V Jackson, Jim Chuchu, Clotilde Jimenez, and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.
“How do we engage artists to have a conversation around a medium that they have been using and do it in a commercial space?” It would be great if this were happening in an institutional place but since it isn’t regularly, I feel that the commercial gallery is the best place to inform the institution about what is going on in Africa.”
Ibrahim loves speaking with her artists, younger or older, it doesn’t matter—she’s not a gallery that is about “hierarchy.” Kudzanai is an artist she recently brought on board and will feature in a solo show in September. “I don’t think the US is very exposed to his work and I would like to push his work to that end. His narrative must be shared as it evokes important issues such as liberations movement, self-determination, deconstruction and so forth.”
This summer, Ibrahim will join forces with Sean Kelly Gallery on a show of African artists working in textile. Africa is the current focus these days for international contemporary art and Ibrahim is taking its pulse with speed and brilliance. “Why now? People ask. Because before people did not want to listen and now they are in a situation where they want to listen to the Africans. You can’t avoid it.” Let the narrative continue. Ibrahim is there.