Mariane Ibrahim Brings African Art to the World through her Galleries

Mariane Ibrahim at her gallery in Chicago, in front of Ian Mwesiga’s Man Standing by the Pool, 2020. Ibrahim wears a Dior jacket, blouse, skirt, socks, and shoes; Almasika earrings. Photographed by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.

When Mariane Ibrahim opened a Seattle gallery in 2012 to showcase the contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora, she felt like she was shining a lonely light on the continent. Times have changed. When she moved to Chicago a year ago, she was greeted, she says, by a “reception unlike any I’ve ever known.” Art lovers are now clamoring to see what she presents. “There was a bit of a joke among people working in the field of contemporary African art that it was getting discovered every year for over a decade now,” observes Karen E. Milbourne, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. “But this is different. There is a seismic change happening. It used to be, ‘Look at El Anatsui.’ And now it is, ‘We need structural social change.’ ”

Although she was successful in Seattle, Ibrahim found the city, where tech overshadows art, constricting. “The artists I worked with were giving me a strong voice, but not Seattle,” she says. Ibrahim was spending at least half the year away, visiting art fairs and meeting with artists. Concluding that she needed to relocate, she considered Los Angeles, Mexico City, and New York, before landing on Chicago. “It’s central, it’s big enough, we have a great institution and great collectors,” she says. “It’s a city with great diversity—30 percent white, 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Black. I thought, I can navigate in this space. I’m away from the noise of New York and the silence of Seattle.” The Chicago gallery occupies a low-slung modernist building with a dark facade and 6,000 square feet of white-walled interior spaces, in the multi-ethnic West Town neighborhood. Next door is the Monique Meloche Gallery, which highlights BIPOC artists, many of whom are African-American. Together, the complementary galleries exert a powerful gravitational force. Throughout the Covid pandemic, Ibrahim and her staff have reported to work at the gallery, convening for a daily communal lunch, even though the public at first was not allowed entry. “I feel like I’m working way more than pre-Covid,” she says. “You are constantly available and have to respond immediately. We have made this gallery, this business space, more of a lifestyle.”

Representing 16 artists of African heritage, Ibrahim, who was born to Somali parents in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, has a keen eye for detecting new talent. She often discovers artists on Instagram; some she finds on her travels. Raphaël Barontini, a mixed-race artist who lives in Paris, met her in Venice during the Biennale. Their connection was forged when she bought one of his collaged portraits for her personal collection at an art fair in San Francisco. “It was one of my favorites,” Barontini says. “She really has an eye. When you show her a series of pieces, she always will go for the best one.” Ibrahim strives for an ecosystem in which emerging Black artists learn from more established ones, nourished by the loyal support of Black collectors. “There’s been so much exceptionalism and wanting to have only one Black superstar artist,” she says. “It’s necessary that the masters and older artists influence the younger artists.”

She takes satisfaction in reporting how one of her brightest stars, the Vienna-based Ghanaian figurative painter Amoako Boafo, drew inspiration from the eminent African-American artist Kerry James Marshall (as well as the Vienna Secessionist Egon Schiele). Having developed his own distinctive style, Boafo is emulated by younger painters today, and he has made it his mission to mentor them. When he collaborated with the fashion designer Kim Jones on the Dior Men Summer 2021 collection, which was presented in July, Boafo waived royalties and instead asked Dior to help fund an institution to assist young artists in Accra. The group of artists that Ibrahim represents is “like a family,” says one of them, Ayana V. Jackson, a New Jersey native who has lived for many years in Johannesburg. Most are of the same generation as Ibrahim, who is in her early 40s. And they share a hybrid sociocultural background, with many of them having left Africa to live in a Western country. “We’re dealing with the complexities and dynamics of the Black experience, asking similar questions but in distinct ways,” Jackson said. “We’re springing from the same root, but we’re very different flowers.”

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