Mariane Ibrahim on Bringing Diversity to the Art World

Ahead of showing artists Amoako Boafo, Yukimasa Ida and Peter Uka at Frieze Seoul, the acclaimed gallerist speaks to Terence Trouillot about carving out her own space 

BY Terence Trouillot in Interviews | 31 AUG 22

Terence Trouillot: You opened your first gallery space in Seattle in 2012; relocated to Chicago in 2019, and you now have a second space in Paris. How did you come into the art world?

Mariane Ibrahim:  I don’t come from a long line of multigenerational art dealers or art collectors, so opening a gallery was a pioneering move not just within my family but within my generation of art professionals because clearly, at the time, there was little diversity in this field in terms of curators, art dealers, artists and so on.

I entered the contemporary art world as a collector. I began to seek out artists of interest, and the result of my research led to the conclusion that there was a lot to be done in support of Black artists. I kept asking myself, ‘Why were these artists not visible in the art market?’ This is when I realized, maybe, there was something for me to fight for. The art world was and remains a coded environment for me, and without the guidance of a mentor it can be discouraging at times, which can lead to mistakes. But that was part of the learning process. 

I was determined to overcome all of the challenges. Now looking back, I had faced more barriers than I do today or had realized at the time. I am hoping that younger gallerists of colour are dealing with fewer obstacles. Although, the obstacles are important and are a source of drive. 

Amoako Boafo Mariane Ibrahim
Amoako Boafo, Smug Face, 2022, oil on canvas, 88 × 63 cm. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim

TT: You grew up in Somaliland and in parts of Europe, mostly France. But you moved to the US ten years ago to open your first gallery with the remit of showcasing and promoting artists of African descent. I wonder if you could speak about that transition. 

MI: I was interested in what my generation – people who have a similar background as I do, who are dealing with these ideas of identity and place – was expressing visually and artistically. I was also interested in what African American artists were producing. I was drawn to all forms of creativity that emerged from the African diaspora. 

Photography was the first medium I engaged with: it was much easier to collect photography than it was to collect paintings then. I was enamoured by photographers who are today considered to be very important in the making of contemporary African photography, such as James Barnor, Samuel Fosso, Seydou Keita, J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere and Malick Sidibé. My first exhibition at my Seattle space was with Sidibé.

TT: Then you made the decision to move the gallery to Chicago, which has been your home since 2019. 

MI: I chose a city I felt was a fruitful environment to showcase our artists, with a strong emphasis on institutions and local collectors. During the pandemic, we expanded and renovated our current space and utilized the time to launch our editions which include lithographs and monographs.

Peter Uka image
Peter Uka, Ideal Reader, 2022, oil on canvas, 200 × 190 cm. Courtesy: Mariane Ibrahim

TT: You seem to always have your finger on the pulse. You recently opened a gallery in Paris just ahead of the announcement of a new art fair, Paris Plus, which launches this October. Your career has been very successful despite your non-traditional approach. 

MI: Actually, I thought moving to Chicago would somehow result in a trend. Similarly, with the same spirit, the Paris gallery came to fruition. Despite the bureaucracy, I was still determined to execute this desire to show in Paris after participating in FIAC and Paris Photo in 2019. Being French this felt like the natural progression, to open a space in my country after all.  

I think Paris can become a leader in the contemporary art world, as it already has a significant foothold in the cultural sector. But what I am more interested in is that Paris has the opportunity to educate the public about the important contributions that contemporary artists of African descent have had on art history. France has many ties to African nations and is so diverse that there is going to be, at some point, this demand from people to see art that reflects their own culture and community. 


Yukimasa Ida sculpture
Yukimasa Ida, About the Face, 2021, wood (camphor tree) and acrylic, 108 × 80 × 66 cm. Courtesy: Mariane Ibrahim 

TT: Your presence in Paris definitely brings new energy to the city’s art scene. Do you visualize more galleries coming to Paris now, as has happened recently in Los Angeles? 

MI: Yes, it’s happening. How can any city compete with Paris? It's difficult to associate this with a trend because Paris has historically been the city which has inspired the most famous artists throughout history. It’s a place of encounter where people come to enjoy life – whether through art, culture, fashion or history. There is no longer this resistance to showing work by artists of different origins and we are humbled to be a part of the change. My motivation is not just to open a space to show work. It’s to contribute to the elevation of this multicultural force that exists. Paris will never be out of fashion. 

TT: You are participating in Frieze Seoul this year. How exciting is it to be at your first art fair in Asia?  

MI: We have existing collectors throughout Asia, which the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified. We have been in close contact but have not had the opportunity to meet all of them in person. This fair is our first physical rendezvous. We have had a growing and consistent demand from Asian collectors in our program. For the inaugural edition, we will be showing new works by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, Nigerian and Cologne-based painter Peter Uka, and a significant installation by Japanese artist Yukimasa Ida. I am particularly excited to visit South Korea and to have this wonderful occasion to familiarize myself with Korean culture. 

Main image: Portrait of Mariane Ibrahim, 2022. Courtesy: Mariane Ibrahim; photograph: Fabrice Gousset 

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.