I just wanted peoples attention: dealer Mariane Ibrahim on championing young artists of the African diaspora

Mariane Ibrahim quickly rose to prominence on the art fair circuit, winning the Armory Shows first Presents prize in 2017 Photo: Sofia Giner

“We can go back and forth,” Mariane Ibrahim suggests as we decide whether to chat in English or French. We meet at Paris Photo, where the now Chicago-based dealer is exhibiting self-portraits by Ayana V. Jackson, but Ibrahim says becoming an art dealer was never part of the plan.

Born in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, Ibrahim studied communications and advertising in London and her “dream was to work for the BBC, figure out what the viewers wanted to watch”. She interned in Canada at Cossette, the agency behind the McDonalds slogan “Cest ça que jm”—the Québec equivalent of “Im lovin it”—before working in marketing in the UK.

But a trip to Paris in the early 2000s triggered her move into art—ironic, perhaps, as she now considers the French market to be slightly “behind”—when she stumbled upon a photograph of a black man holding a flower by the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta. It sparked Ibrahims interest in contemporary African art, for which she has since become known as a champion, and she still regrets not buying it: “Everyone kept telling me I was looking in the wrong direction. Which, as a marketing agent, was music to my ears.”

From Somalia to Seattle

The discovery inspired a trip to Africa, where she played a role in getting Unesco recognition for the cave paintings of Laas Geel in Somalia. On her return to France, she married Pierre Lenhardt, who now helps run her gallery. Together they started collecting, first concentrating on photography. “Now my taste is evolving towards paintings,” she says. I ask her who is on her radar, but she declines to say; while she is more than happy to put artists names forward as a gallery owner, “as a rather competitive collector Id rather not share my preferences”, she says.

In 2010, “inspired by what was going on [in the US] under the Obama Administration” the couple moved to Seattle—not Ibrahims first choice of city but, she says now, “the perfect city to get started. Nothing was happening there.”

She opened M. I. A. Gallery in 2012 with an exhibition of the Malian artist Malick Sidibé photographs to great acclaim, but local interest dwindled fast: “Twelve is my favourite number but 2012 was not a good year,” she says. It took another trip to Paris, on the occasion of Black Portraiture[s]—a conference about the representation of the black body in the West—to crystallise her vision “to focus exclusively on young and emerging artists from the African diaspora”.

Whereas many dealers bemoan the relentless schedule of fairs, Ibrahim saw them as an opportunity to get her burgeoning roster of artists seen globally. She started with the first edition of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London in 2013, which led to Basels Volta, where she brought a 5m-long painting knowing she would not be able to sell it. “I just wanted peoples attention,” she says.

It worked. She quickly built a roster of emerging artists who have since become recognisable on the fair circuit the world over, such as Clotilde Jimenez, Lina Iris Viktor and Zohra Opoku, a presentation of whose work netted Ibrahim the New York Armory Shows first ever Presents prize in 2017. It was around then that her friend Tony Karman, the director of Expo Chicago, convinced her to move to the Windy City if she wanted to continue growing.

“Chicago has the three things I always look for in a city: good food, art and breath taking architecture,” she says. “It is walkable, unlike Los Angeles, and New York was too obvious. Mexico City also fitted the bill but there is a strong sense of community in Chicago I could not ignore.” Ibrahim enjoys the proximity of like-minded dealers such as Rhona Hoffman and her next-door neighbour Monique Meloche, with whom she is already preparing shows. “I am amazed at how welcoming people have been.”

The Obama spirit is still alive in Chicago—it is, after all, where the former First Family calls home. Fittingly, the day Ibrahim got the keys to her new space, Lori Lightfoot, Chicagos first black female mayor, was elected—a milestone sadly not reached sooner in one of the most liberal citiRead More – Source