Exhibitor’s interview: Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Gallery director

This is the last of a series of interviews with three of this year’s exhibiting galleries, conducted by Emma Wingfield, a freelance art researcher and writer, with a background in African Art based in NYC. The interviews aim to discuss the galleries themselves, their views on their local and global Contemporary African Art markets, and their artists/involvement with 1:54.

Here we have Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Director Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle, USA.

Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt founded M.I.A Gallery in 2012. The name M.I.A optimizes the gallery’s character; of being on a mission; moving through unchartered territory; exhibiting art movements which were relatively absent from the international art market map. The gallery is both Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s and her artist’s identities, working together. Originally from Somalia and having lived on three different continents (Africa, Europe, and North America) her interest in emerging Contemporary Art has been heavily influenced by her experiences and observations of the world around her. With a background in media communications and advertising, she has worked in a variety of different international sectors. In the early 2000’s she played a vital role in attaining UNESCO recognition of Somalian rock art and cave paintings as an important cultural monument, desperately in need of conservation and protection. Although the project was put on hold as political tensions in Somalia intensified, Ibrahim-Lenhardt is adamant about one day returning to the site and increasing the knowledge and local interaction with some of the world’s oldest forms of art. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s ability to attract international focus to an under-represented art form, which has for the most part been forgotten or ignored by the international art community is a fitting compliment to her current venture at M.I.A.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt began her commercial art career as a collector, buying pieces of art from artists she found engaging and interesting, all the while developing close relationships with likeminded galleries and curators. Timing was crucial. Ibrahim-Lenhardt recognized a gap in the art market, particularly in the United States. Very few galleries were working with emerging artists, especially artists with similar backgrounds to hers and working with issues she felt were important. However, Ibrahim-Lenhardt also quickly recognized that the art market was on the verge of a shift, and change was steadily developing within the Contemporary African Art market. Therefore, M.I.A was created with an aim to highlight emerging artists and to utilize different spaces/movements for people who wanted to see the art she was interested in. In other words a space of dialogue and a place to promote African artists.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s decision to focus on emerging artists was inspired by her interest in the artists themselves and the connections among herself, the artists, and the gallery. In many ways, the gallery is also “emerging” within the United States art market. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s definition of “emerging” is unusual. She argues, that in many respects, even “established” Contemporary African artists are still, in a way, “emerging”. This does not describe the level of work or the complexity of the issues being dealt with, but instead the level of establishment within the art market.

By working together with her artists, Ibrahim-Lenhardt gets to be apart of their development, in order to build a better understanding of their work. She has carefully nurtured relationships with these artists in order to create an ongoing dialogue which is visible in the exhibitions she produces.

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© Sébastien Gracco de Lay

“The ability to communicate with an artist and share their vision is an invaluable part of creating a successful commercial gallery, especially one with a focus on art which may not be considered mainstream. The energy these artists have is so inspiring. There is this kind of blurred line between a gallery curator and the artists. We are all in this profession, we’re in the same boat.”

— Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt

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© Sébastien Gracco de Lay

Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s interpretation of contemporary reception of African Art comes from a unique perspective. Being both Somalian and French and currently living in the United States, she has the ability to view the contemporary African Art market from both a global and local perspective. M.I.A’s clients come from all over the world, proving that interest in contemporary African Art is wide spread and steadily gaining more and more attention. With the aid of technology, marketing African artist has become easier. Geographic boundaries are no longer an issue. Art can easily travel to and from Africa. The artists can stay and work in the place that inspires them while the galleries provide the vital infrastructure from which their art can be exhibited on a global platform. Nonetheless, M.I.A gallery does not exclusively exhibit African artists. Ibrahim-Lenhardt expanded her gallery’s focus because both she and her artists did not want to be put in a box where they were only exhibiting alongside other African Artists or were viewed as an assimilation of what African Art should be.

From a local, American, perspective, although Contemporary African Art’s polarity is intensifying, there still aren’t many commercial galleries that are directly involved. There are a few in major city hubs like New York and San Francisco, however out of those galleries few have an interest in really working to extract new artists and work from the African continent and Diaspora. As a gallery dedicated to just that, M.I.A has quickly gained attention from curators and larger public museums globally, a collaboration Ibrahim-Lenhardt describes as invaluable. Similar to Primo Marella Gallery, Ibrahim-Lenhardt adds that the people who have direct access to works of art are the commercial galleries and collectors. The galleries provide an invaluable service to the larger public institutions by being the link between collectors/artists and such museums.

Ibrahim-Lenhardt thinks that major stimuli for continued interest in Contemporary African Art are due to “local” communities actively wanting to see the art. If the pressure from the local communities to see emerging art is low, then larger institutions wont exhibit it. The recent surge in interest, according to Ibrahim-Lenhardt, has been due to the increased interest in Contemporary African Art progressing form an overarching global Diasporic focus to include more localized interests. Although still dispersed, hints of this growth can be seen through the introduction of major exhibitions in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, and next summer, at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). This is something Ibrahim-Lenhardt argues will change drastically in the coming years. She predicts in two to three years time, more exhibitions will be readily available, increasing the visibility of African Art. For example, the exhibition set to show at the SAM next summer incorporates traditional African Art that is contemporary and relatively unseen in the global Diaspora.

For Ibrahim-Lenhardt, 1:54 plays a vital role in the presentation of Contemporary African Art. Upon hearing about the fair in 2013, Ibrahim-Lenhardt immediately new that she wanted to be apart of it for a multitude of reasons; both personal and practical. For Ibrahim-Lenhardt, Somerset House has an important and symbolic place in her heart. It conjures up wonderful memories of time spent living in London as well as a valuable platform for art. She is extremely proud of the fact that a Contemporary African Art fair is being presented in such a central location. London is an already a well established art locale within the international market. Furthermore, 1:54’s environment, as an art fair with a specific purpose is unlike any other international art fair M.I.A participates in. The variety of galleries that exhibit and the art being presented is of outstanding quality. Ibrahim-Lenhardt adds, the interaction between the different galleries feels more collaborative than competitive. It is more welcoming and educational. It stimulates discussions and broadens views on Contemporary Art untouched by many other art fairs.

This year’s 1:54, Ibrahim-Lenhardt is bringing five artists; Soly Cissé, Bruce Clarke, Patrizia Maïmouna Guerresi, Fabrice Monteiro, Jean-Claude Moschetti. These artist all work with a similar central complex theme: Who is African and who is not. For example, Ibrahim-Lenhardt describes herself as French and African. She argues that because she is African, she can also get away with being French and vice versa. This is not so easy for someone with an Italian background, its one or the other. For Ibrahim-Lenhardt we are all African in someway, and it is this central question that her selected five artists, as African artists, are engaging with in their work. Their work involves Africa on Africa. Bruce Clarke was considered one of the first in the wave of internationally recognized South African artists dealing with apartheid in the late 80’s and 90’s. Guerresi, according to Ibrahim-Lenhardt, just embodies the African spirit. Working predominantly in Senegal, Guerresi works have predominantly focused on empowering women and breaking through cultural, political, and psychological boarders in order to appreciate aspects of shared humanity. Monteiro has a background in photo-journalism, which is heavily present in his work. Having strong Belgian and Beninese backgrounds, his work carries an air of multiculturalism and an engaging hybrid of aesthetics: mixing past with present, animism and modern society, combinations not seen anywhere else in Africa today. Monteiro’s work also has a reflectiveness about it. He does not present a single dull image of Africa, but instead, exhibits multiple possible narratives on “Africa” today. In further contrast, Moschetti’s work deals with West African secret societies. Having been initiated into many of these different societies, Moschetti provides a unique opportunity to explore a very private cultural system. He is extremely knowledgeable about these communities and his images reflect the idea of living in two different worlds, the living and the dead.

This is M.I.A’s second year at 1:54. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s exhibition plan revolves around notions of movement and motions of the human body. The selected pieces from the above artists reflect a continuous attempt to capture such movement. The present in an instant, once taken immediately becomes the past. Monteiro’s movement concerns the contemporary African body as an extension of the environment they are in. For Clark, movement is in the form of a political body, aroused, even at times enraged, opposed to a spiritual elevation of a body presented in Moschetti or Guerresi work. A sculpture by Guerresi, a human body that has been condensed, and completely closed up into itself, forms the center piece of Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s exhibition. Is it reflective, closed off? The sculpture’s beauty is in its vulnerability, a theme intrinsic to all human beings, African or not.

Interview conducted by Emma Wingfield.

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