We first discovered the much talked about Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (then known as M.I.A. Gallery) a few years ago at an opening event celebrating the launch of Helen Jenning's book New African Fashion. Since then we've been impressed by this Seattle based art gallery and its dedication to showcasing diverse and thought provoking art from contemporary artists who have traditionally been under-represented in the art world. The art world has begun to take notice of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Earlier this year, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery was awarded a $10,000 award by the Armory Show, a leading art fair in New York. We met with gallery owner Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt on a cool summer day in downtown Seattle and discussed diversity in the art world, the experience of running an art gallery, and what it means to be a black/Somali woman in the art world.
IA: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Mariane. You were born in New Caledonia, lived in Somalia before the war broke out, moved to France, lived in London, and then studied briefly in Quebec. How did exposure to such diverse places shape your cultural palette?
Mariane: There are places you choose to live and others that you are forced to leave. I aim to adapt and to take advantage of every single opportunity in order to learn more about myself. Every person, culture and religion I was exposed to has shaped me. I have never felt too comfortable or too strange. Living this way influences you to go where you don’t belong. Diversity is not only physical, actual physical places don’t resonate much. What influences me the most are people.
IA: What is the role art has played in your life? Were you always a connoisseur of art?
Mariane: It has a significant importance. Visual art sparked my interest much later, when I was a teenager. I have always been curious and have enjoyed going to art centres. I became more involved recently, and working in this environment made me more aware and an expert rather than just contemplating the arts. In my opinion, you have to be a frustrated artist to work as a dealer.
IA: You created an NGO and partnered with UNESCO and archaeologists in order to protect the Laas Geel ancient cave paintings. In fact, you were successful in making Laas Geel the first Somali World Heritage site. What inspired you to do this? Do you still engage in this work?
Mariane: That was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences. I guess I was expressing a form of cultural fatigue. I was tired of being discovered and being part of this neocolonialist discourse. I worked hard, harder than others, to share a story that was not mine but belonged to mankind. Archeologists tend to claim ownership of culture. So it was necessary to show, that we (as Africans) know our heritage, it has been transmitted from generation to generation through oral traditions. And this journey also took me to pay homage to one of the first greatest female leader, Araweelo near Erigabo, Somaliland. I have taken a step back but will for sure continue advocating these amazing sites. Ironically, these cave paintings were the first art galleries that have ever existed. It is comforting to pursue what I am doing.
IA: When did you decide that you wanted to open an art gallery? What did the road to that decision look like?
Mariane: It was an idea. I would not have imagined to open an art gallery, now that I actually have one, I ask myself why haven’t I not done this before. It has not been easy, it is a very demanding and hardworking business. My family was not surprised as I began ‘impossible’ projects. Opening a gallery was not too difficult, managing and making it work is the challenge.
IA: You are possibly the only Somali female art gallery owner and one of the few black gallery owners on our radar. That being said, how does your identity influence your work? How often do you meet other black gallery owners?
Mariane: I sometimes don’t think that I am the only one, or don’t want to think. It makes you more obnoxious. This is not where I focus. I tend to reflect on the current trends, what is going on in various parts of the world. I luckily have been connected with black artists, curators, architects who have been great supporters. I don’t see many black art dealers, many say I am the only one...I am sure there are a few out there, and a few will soon be known.
IA: In the early days, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery focused largely on contemporary African Art and you've exhibited the likes of Maïmouna Guerresi, Soly Cisse, Malick Sidibe, and Delphine Diaw Diallo. What motivated you to open a gallery often focused on contemporary African Art, and why in Seattle of all places?
Mariane: I am still showing artists from Africa. I simply believe Africa must be heard and seen in many and different ways. As I navigated in the art world, I would notice how Africa is missing from the map. It is vital to expose Africa, and other regions. We are under-represented. My mission is to generate more visibility, so our voices are not only heard but count.
IA: In the past you’ve attended the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. What was that experience like for you? Does a network of African artists and African gallery owners exist?
Mariane: I participated in the first edition of the fair. It is one of the most professional and friendly art fairs I have had the pleasure of doing. It is always wonderful to meet the dealers and artists. With the art dealers, we share a lot of concerns and are all putting our energy to promote the artists. We know each other, we sometimes unite.
IA: What has been the biggest challenge or joy of running your own art gallery?
Mariane: Just walking to my space and asking myself what is going to happen. Every moment is a blessing. I am grateful.
IA: Do you have any plans to exhibit any Somali artists in the future?
Mariane: I am actually following one young Somali artist, so the answer is YES.
IA: What is the process of selecting an artist to exhibit in your gallery like?
Mariane: There is no process. If there is a connection, it works.
IA: What advice do you have for all the black/Somali art babes out there who want to pursue a career in the art world but don't see enough representation of themselves?
Mariane: I was more or less prepared. It is a very uncertain and unpredictable career. My advice is have a plan and multi-task. The most difficult part is not to open a space, it is to run the gallery on a daily basis. And go with your feelings.
IA: What's next for you and for Mariane Ibrahim Gallery?
Mariane: I have so many projects and am also focusing on my development both strategically and internationally. And I need to travel more :)
More can be found on Mariane Ibrahim Gallery here.
Ifrah Ahmed is an Editor of Araweelo Abroad.