Did you know that Seattle is home to one of the most talked-about international galleries in the world right now? Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. There are avid Seattle collectors who still haven't ventured in. But if you live in the Northwest and care about art, you should know how "Mariane Ibrahim" became a buzzword on the global art-fair circuit.
Earlier this year, the Armory Show, New York's premier art fair, offered a prize for the first time in its 23-year history: a $10,000 award that covers the cost of a booth in its "Presents" section, allowing a young gallery of exceptional vision to exhibit for free. The recipient of this inaugural prize? Mariane Ibrahim Gallery from Seattle, Washington, USA.
The art press took immediate notice—not just of the prize, but of the work itself, how it's being shown, and what that represents for the future of the art market. In a time when a record number of galleries are closing (as the New York Times recently reported), Mariane Ibrahim has found a niche doing something that very few American galleries are doing, even in New York—emphasizing the work of contemporary artists from places that have historically been underrepresented on the international stage.
"They look at me and they're like, 'Seattle! Really?!'" gallerist Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt laughs, making a face as she affects a facetious American accent. "When I get out of Seattle to go to the art fairs, I am a gallery from Seattle. I'm not me. I'm not, you know—French or whatever. I am Seattle."
If Ibrahim-Lenhardt is Seattle, then Seattle is doing pretty well for itself. In addition to snagging the Booth Prize at the Armory Show, her gallery has exhibited at more than half a dozen art fairs in the past year, globe-trotting from London and Basel to Cape Town and Johannesburg. This schedule is even more impressive when you consider the amount of planning that goes into each of her booths.
"For me, it's important when I present in an art fair that I come up with a concept, that it's something that I feel very strongly about," she tells me over tea in the tidy, book-lined office of her Pioneer Square gallery. Local audiences might recall her contribution to last year's Seattle Art Fair—an exhibition of works by Ayana Jackson, Jim Chuchu, Scarlett Coten, Fabrice Monteiro, and Sofie Knijff, all covered with a shiny, petroleum-based black film by Clay Apenouvon, evoking themes of both erasure and environmental devastation.
For her award-winning booth at the Armory Show, the concept was to remove one of the standardized walls and replace it with textile works bearing witness to the family history of German/Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku, who grew up with parts of her family separated by the Berlin Wall.
"This is what the wall makes," Ibrahim-Lenhardt states emphatically. "The wall separates families from being together and loving together. When we hear people today in politics saying, 'We're going to build a wall'—why can't you learn from the past?"
The disruption that political borders impose on people's lives is a recurring theme for Mariane Ibrahim's international stable of artists, who tend—with some exceptions—to have roots in the African continent, Islam, or both. Ibrahim-Lenhardt is herself French, Somali, and Muslim, something many journalists tend to emphasize in a way that can obscure a deeper appreciation of what she's doing. "When there is a commentary on my presentation or the presentation of my artists, there is a constant reminder of their geolocalization, of their identity, which never happens for artists of Eurocentric descent," she tells me. "My interpretation is more about excavating the globality or the universality from the work. I barely put any label on the wall because I want the pure contact with the artist, and not to be distracted by where they're from."
Spending just a few minutes in her pristine white cube gallery makes this last point clear. Like Ibrahim-Lenhardt herself, every detail is thoughtful, contemporary, and impeccably chic. This is a gallery that would not be out of place in New York, London, or Hong Kong. If anything about Mariane Ibrahim surprises us, perhaps it's because we're so accustomed to ignoring the cultural output of certain continents. As she puts it, "I really am on the side of the voices that we try to shut down."
In October, Mariane Ibrahim will be exhibiting the work of Iranian artist Negar Farajiani, a multimedia artist whose work in painting, graphic design, and installation plays with the concept of public and private space. This show was planned before the travel ban, back when the Obama administration was showing signs of opening the United States to Iran.
"It's going to be great, because now we will be able to get the work that she's doing in Iran to come to America!" she says, recalling the enthusiasm she and the artist had originally shared.
"And then this guy came," she says, meaning the current president. "Boom. Shut down. So we're back to a worse position."
But giving up is not in Ibrahim-Lenhardt's vocabulary, even if it takes some creativity to get the work here. "She's one of my artists, and I have always been supportive, and we were planning this exhibition way before, so I'm not going to change my agenda."
This agenda, I learn throughout our conversation, is not so much political—though many of her artists make overtly political work—as it is about cultivating emotional and social resonance. "Everything that I do is about expressing my truth," she tells me. "I never present work in provocation. I present work to engage in conversation."
At the moment, the walls of the gallery are hung with the huge, sensuous paintings of lovers—one black, one white—in various stages of embrace. This is Falling in Love, Again, an exhibition of self-portraits by Mwangi Hutter, a husband-and-wife artist team whose impressive résumé includes venues like the Centre Pompidou, Documenta, and the Venice Biennale.
Ingrid Mwangi was born in Nairobi to a German mother and a Kenyan father. She moved to Germany as a teenager and later attended art school, where she met fellow student Robert Hutter. The two began collaborating in 1998, and in 2005, they merged their biographies and artistic identities to form Mwangi Hutter—what they call a "double-gendered, multi-cultured personality entity." Their work in video, sound, performance, installation, sculpture, and now painting engages the history and context of body art to create an aesthetic of self-knowledge and interrelationship.
"For me, this was a very natural choice, a celebration of love. Two people love each other and they merge," Ibrahim-Lenhardt explains, visibly delighted by both the work and the artists as people. She finds the idea of giving up one's sole creative ego in favor of a partnership thrilling. "It's such a risk to take, but they have done it for the past 10 years. You can see how vibrant their relationship is, and it's really beautiful."
"But now critique is coming slowly," she continues, "and people reach out to me and say, 'Wow, what a choice, bravo, how provocative, how controversial.' I'm like, really? Controversial or political? It didn't occur to me that way. And they say, 'But look: You live in a country where things are black or white... that's controversial, you know?' To even stage interrelationship. To stage a black and white love."
On the night before the public opening, I heard the artists speak about their work in a conversation at the gallery moderated by Negarra A. Kudumu of Frye Art Museum. "Before we came to the topic of love, there were many different phases," said Ingrid Mwangi, as her husband looked on adoringly. "The beginning works were very much about racism, divisiveness, violence—all different kinds of violence: historical, political, domestic." She interrupted herself. "And Robert also has a voice. I tend to talk more sometimes."
"I just love listening to Ingrid," said Robert Hutter, grinning. The audience laughed.
Back when they were making work about violence, there were a lot of artists working with what Mwangi terms a "diagnosis of problematics," using art to identify and expose these kinds of issues. "But then after a while, it seemed to be so excessive," she recalled. "It didn't seem to be really offering the viewer material with which to continue from there. So we thought, we don't want it to end simply with saying, 'This is the situation.' There comes a time when it's like: What is it that I'm offering? Where is the transformatory moment? It's the task of an artist not only to absorb, digest, and project what the society's experiencing but also to create some sort of visionary aspect for the direction that it can take."
She described the process of making a sound piece where she screamed until she didn't feel like screaming anymore. "You can't keep on screaming forever," she said. Once again, everyone laughed together.
That night, I left the gallery feeling hopeful, but heavy—intoxicated by the beauty of the work and the optimism of the conversation, but troubled by the chasm between Mwangi Hutter's "transformatory moment" and the violence of the outside world, which is still very much in the "diagnosis of problematics" stage. Many of us won't even acknowledge the systemic violence entrenched in our culture at every conceivable level, and ideas like "unity" and "love" are too often used as platitudes to quell righteous outrage.
It's easy to talk about love, but so difficult to embody it. To embody love, we must learn how to make ourselves vulnerable. It's a risky proposition, like giving up one's individual ego in the service of a partnership.
There are brilliant conversations happening at Mariane Ibrahim, but who is listening? And why is this gallery so much more famous outside Seattle than inside Seattle?
"I don't understand why people are so scared to come in," says Ibrahim-Lenhardt, smiling. "We're not going to bite."
It's not just the general public here that has been slow to catch on to what she's doing. There are wealthy local collectors who would seemingly rather travel to New York to buy art than set foot in her gallery. "If I said, 'This is hanging in a New York museum'—'Hmm, okay, I might consider it.' Because of the validation, you know?" She laughs. "I'm pretty sure that if I move out of Seattle, I will have more collectors from Seattle."
I tell her that I've noticed this in the music world, too. It often seems like Seattle doesn't truly embrace its own artists until they move to New York or Los Angeles.
"The Jimi Hendrix Effect!" she snaps, and I almost fall out of my chair laughing. "It seems like great spirits, great minds, great things have been here but undervalued, and then suddenly they're being owned by other cities." She goes on to describe an irony she constantly senses while traveling: All over the world, young people emulate a Pacific Northwest aesthetic, from long beards and lumberjack shirts to coffee culture and fixed-gear bikes.
"The image of Seattle is extremely positive internationally. The image of Seattle domestically is extremely negative. We have low self-esteem!"
Can the external validation of a gallery like Mariane Ibrahim—so active on the international stage—help give Seattle's art scene a self-esteem boost? Everyone I asked about Ibrahim-Lenhardt seems to think so.
"Mariane is an inspiring colleague," says Sharon Arnold, founder of Bridge Productions. "She challenges us to think bigger than Seattle, to place ourselves in context with a global community."
"I feel fortunate that my gallery is situated two doors away from Mariane," says James Harris. "Her program elevates the entire gallery scene here."
"Mariane removes our noses from our navels and puts us squarely into our world—a world that is black, brown, female, Anthropocene, filled with alternative facts and injustice but still a place worth being," says Negarra A. Kudumu, who has collaborated with Ibrahim-Lenhardt as a guest cocurator. "She has created not only a model for a successful gallery, but also a resilient framework that eschews revisionism and simple categorization."
It's clear that Mariane Ibrahim adds something extraordinary to the local ecosystem that might have never been here otherwise. "Some of the artists really think there is a contemporary African art scene in Seattle," she laughs. "And I'm like, no, no there isn't. It's just me."
It's an accident of history that brought Ibrahim-Lenhardt to Seattle—she and her husband, Pierre Lenhardt, moved here in 2010 for his career. After years of working as a freelance art agent in Paris, she decided to try her hand as a full-time gallerist in 2012. "I never imagined that this would be easy," she tells me. "I say, 'If I can make it in Seattle, I can make it anywhere in the world.'"
And in spite of our low self-esteem, she loves it here. "I think it's better than any other cities in America," she says. Another thing she loves: the Seattle Art Fair and its founder, Paul Allen. "I don't know him, but I really really really like the guy! We always talk about him because he's doing something. We don't talk about the other ones who are not doing anything."
But after previously serving on the Seattle Art Fair Dealer Committee, Mariane Ibrahim will not be presenting at the fair this year. This isn't a snub; it's a conscious effort to save her resources for art fairs in other cities. Instead of working, she plans to look at art and have fun.
"I'm a collector myself," she tells me. "There really is such a great satisfaction that I almost feel sorry for people who don't collect," she continues, adding that there are always options for people who don't have a lot of money but want to feel the "cosmic connection" with an artist that can come through owning art.
"It's fantastic to be a collector! You have access to another world. When collectors meet with each other and share their passion, it creates beautiful community."
But you don't have to be a collector to appreciate the impact of Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt's presence here, or follow her advice. "The only message that I could send out to people here in Seattle is don't be scared to walk into a gallery," she says. "Don't be scared to ask questions. Research and see what's going on. You're going to discover something."