“If I had to suggest an immediate solution, it’s to please integrate us, please include us – not as your assistant, but in a position of power.”
Within mere moments of striking up a conversation with Mariane Ibrahim, a razor-sharp figure in the art world in all senses of the term, she cuts straight to the point – which is both important and urgent. She knows exactly what needs to be said, read, shared and understood.
Ibrahim, who has a regal presence that borders on the intimidating, opened her first gallery in Seattle, Washington in 2012. “My husband worked at Boeing and told me he had a job offer in Washington,” she laughs. “At first I assumed he meant DC, but it wasn’t that one.”
Still, she accepted the prospect of relocating. It was time to leave France. “The racism there was really something else,” she says. “How Black people were being addressed was shocking.” She instinctively knew that representing artists of the African diaspora would be easier to achieve in the USA than in France, given the atmosphere created and nourished by the Obama administration, among other reasons.
Portrait of Mariane Ibrahim in the New Paris Gallery. Taken by Fabrice Gousset. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim
Mariane Ibrahim was born in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. The family moved back to Somalia when Mariane was very young. Those happy and comfortable years were interrupted in 1986 when, amidst a vicious civil war, they were forced to escape to France. After finishing high school in Bordeaux, Mariane moved to London to study Communications at Middlesex University, later returning to Paris to work in advertising. She also set up a non-profit cultural organisation to preserve the rock-art paintings of Laas Geel in Somalia. She knew then that working with artists whose narratives were misrepresented and under-told was her calling.
In Seattle, she toiled hard to accrue a strong group of artists and collectors to work with. The first exhibitions were an experiment in how to position the issues, not as trends but as part of a solid and serious movement. The work was very much focused on the way the bodies, subjects and stories of Black people were being told. “I wanted to show a new approach to blackness,” she says, “but mostly, I wanted to find out where the pain started and to look for answers through art without losing any of the beauty.”
In 2017 she won the Best Booth Prize at The Armory Show in New York, dedicated to young galleries for the most outstanding and innovative gallery presentation – a big deal that further catapulted her into the top realm of gallerists. In that show, titled Unravelled Threads, she exhibited photographs and textile pieces by German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku.
Momentum swelled, but Seattle was limited. By 2019, and despite her global reputation, it became harder for her to rigorously connect with what was going on in major art hubs, and she felt the need to be more physically present in the cities where things were starting to happen. She considered moving to New York, Mexico, and Los Angeles, but finally settled on Chicago. “It’s the ultimate and only true American city,” she says. “It has a total soul, incredible diversity – 30 percent White, 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Black. It made beautiful sense to me, like it was my Gotham. Michael Jordan was living there, as were so many top Black entrepreneurs. Black people have made a truly valuable contribution to society in Chicago, which I really hadn’t experienced elsewhere, especially in France.”
It went well in Chicago, and in parallel Ibrahim presented at FIAC art fair in Paris, Frieze in New York, and Art Basel Miami Beach. Her husband quit his job to assist her full-time, and the team kept expanding. Today, the gallery represents 15 artists, including Accra-based Amoako Boafo, Clotilde Jimenez, Jerrell Gibbs, Yukimasa Ida, and Ayana V. Jackson. She has also built an enviable body of collectors to whom she is devoted and loyal. Ibrahim talks about them and her entire team as family – actually better than family, more a group of like-minded, good and committed people who believe in all she is doing to retell a flawed story.
This month marks another milestone for Mariane Ibrahim – the opening of a satellite space in the prestigious 8th arrondissement of Paris. Her decision to look back at the France she so consciously left was difficult, but it was directly related to an awareness of the complicated surge in interest among French museums to repatriate African artworks. If debate is heating up about the old African artworld, then what about the contemporary situation? How can she become more involved in order to make sure short-sighted speculation doesn’t destroy the market’s integrity, while also creating a more fair and valid atmosphere? Her decision to reconnect was also a response to the growing demand from European collectors for the kind of works she is presenting – by artists that straddle and deny divides, those who confound traditional notions of place and race.
“I’ve always loved dualities,” effuses Ibrahim. “People from different places that revel and thrive in their diversity without having to choose.” Indeed, the inaugural show at her new Paris gallery this September is called J’ai Deux Amours : mon pays et Paris [I have Two Loves: my country and Paris]. The title is an homage to Josephine Baker, the American singer, performer, and activist who moved from the States to Paris in her twenties but regularly returned home to perform and to protest for civil rights. By the 1950s she was refusing to appear on stage to segregated audiences. “You know, I have always taken the rocky path,” Baker once said in a speech in Washington DC in 1963. “I never took the easy way, but as I got older and as I gained the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for You. I want You to have a chance at what I had.”
Ibrahim has returned to an altered France – a place where difficult conversations are being had. Momentous movements like #blacklivesmatter #metoo and even #pro-palestine are having an effect, and local insurgencies like #giletsjaune / #yellowvests as well as the period of pause enforced by Covid-19 have all affected things a lot. But she remains shocked by some of what she sees, like, for example, the recent incident of a man slapping French president Emmanuel Macron in the face. “I am just glad it wasn’t a Black person or an Arab who did it,” she says, “but that this sort of behaviour even occurs, concerns me. What does it mean for our democracy? I sense that so much needs to be done, and it’s going to take time.”
Significantly, Ibrahim doesn’t want politics, causes or issues to heave any heaviness onto the artists. “That’s just too much pressure for them,” she says. “I want this space to be about gathering and celebration.”
The newly renovated interior extends over three floors, comprising 400 square metres of open space. It’s not her stated goal, but word on the street is that the opening of the Mariane Ibrahim gallery will surely disrupt the Establishment, shake up the French collectors’ comfort zone and intensify the currently progressing renaissance of the Paris art scene. “You have to be in the system to change it,” she asserts.
And it’s about time too. The discussion on race is changing. Whether it concerns drugging at the Olympics or police brutality, the narrative is alive and vigilant. Structural change will happen. “I didn’t want a hidden space,” Ibrahim informs, “I wanted an open conversation. I think the French are sometimes scared of the race issue or at least try to avoid it, which is where the problem starts. But even in the States, people will still ask me ‘Why do you only work with Black artists?’, and I tell them it is what I’ll do for as long as they feel the need to call them Black artists.”
“It’s not going to be easy,” she concludes. “It will take a decade for creators to deal with this, but it’s my responsibility now to open this gallery.”
J’ai Deux Amours : mon pays et Paris
18 September – 16 October 2021
Mariane Ibrahim, 18 Avenue Matignon, 75008 Paris, France