When people think of Seattle, a few things immediately come to mind. Sandwiched between water and snow-capped mountains, the urban hub is famous for being the birthplace of grunge music, its love for coffee, its tech boom, and its delicious food culture. But there’s a lesser-known gem woven into the fabric of the city, and it’s challenging art-world norms full force.
Gallerist Mariane Ibrahim has carved out an exceptional niche for herself in a way that very few North American art galleries are bold enough to do: she has developed an award-winning, global platform for artists from Africa and the diaspora—a cohort of talented creators that have been ignored throughout art history, especially on the international scene.
Ibrahim founded her self-titled gallery in Seattle’s downtown Pioneer Square neighbourhood back in 2012, a few short years after she and her husband relocated to the United States from France. “We wanted to get out of Europe and were very much fascinated with the Obama administration,” reveals the Somali–French gallerist about what lured the pair stateside. Seattle ended up being home due to her husband’s job, and the couple now splits their time between Seattle and New York.
A long-time art enthusiast and collector, Ibrahim felt the urge to create a physical space that was inclusive of black art—part of a desire to bust distorted realities and invite discussions. “When we look at the African continent, we think that there is nothing. We have a current administration that literally qualified an entire continent with a name that I won’t even pronounce,” says Ibrahim, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s infamous description of several African nations, along with Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole” countries early last year.
“I wanted to invite artists who strongly think that they correspond to what’s happening in Africa. Their voices are so interesting, unique, and their work is relevant to what’s going on. Their joining [the art] conversation is very important,” she continues. “I look at [the gallery] as a place where we have cultural and intellectual conversations, and emotional debates. It had to be a physical space to do this.”
With an ever-growing roster of emerging and established artists of African descent and beyond, Ibrahim says that her process for selecting whom she exhibits is reactionary. “It has a lot to do with my external environment. I observe and I see what makes sense for people to see in that moment,” she explains.
As for any recurring narratives evoked through the works of the artists she represents, the gallerist acknowledges that many of the artworks she shows are politically charged. “I am very close to themes that deal with globalization and climate change,” she says, giving the example of Clay Apenouvon, a Togolese mixed-media artist known for his arresting work in black plastic.
Artworks that draw on the past for inspiration and expose elements of marginalized black history, like the signature 24-karat gold pieces of artist Lina Iris Viktor, are equally important to Ibrahim. “People see Lina’s work as very decorative, but she’s using something that has been taken away. Gold has been used against the people of Africa, even South America, and used to build civilizations on top of the ones that were destroyed,” she explains.
One constant focus for Ibrahim and her programming is redressing the imbalance of female creators, as women trail far behind men in the art world. “I like to have an army of female artists when I’m presenting. We really do need to see more of them,” she says. Add in the layer of race and a much greater imbalance appears. “Black female artists should be in a higher stead than they are now,” emphasizes Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is herself a product of multiple places (she was born in Nouméa, New Caledonia, and spent her childhood between Somalia and France), and her globe-trotting to various art fairs every year has acted as a crucial platform in gaining her gallery and her artists international recognition. “I have a constant need to move, to reach out and to expose the work of the artists that I represent to the maximum amount of people,” she expresses.
Many call Ibrahim a leader for the contemporary African art scene, but as for the gallerist, she simply sees her business as a conduit for steering the right conversations about a culture. “I’m not a pioneer,” she says. “I’m just catching up with this misrepresentation.”