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The Somali-French art dealer bringing Black perspectives to Paris’ gallery scene

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

When Mariane Ibrahim opened her elegant, new three-story art gallery in Paris last September, she became one of the few Black gallerists to set up shop in the French capital and dedicate the space to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

Located in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, among other noted galleries and close to landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, the space has featured the otherworldly mixed-media figures of Haitian American artist M. Florine Démosthène and found-image collages by Afro Latino artist Clotilde Jiménez. In April, Ibrahim debuted the European show of Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo, who captures the beauty of Black skin in swirling, lush brushstrokes.

The gallery’s setting, in a crisp, airy new space, housed inside a historical building designed in classic Haussmann style, was particularly meaningful to her to underscore the importance of the lesser-seen work. “It commands a certain contemplation, when you come in,” she said in a phone interview. “I really intended to have a space that is prestigious, that is able to host the art of the future.”

Before her homecoming to Paris, Ibrahim has spent the past decade building her US presence through eponymous galleries in Seattle and Chicago, with a focus on African diasporic art. Over the past few years, American museums and galleries have made significant strides in representing Black artists, she said, while art market interest has surged as well. But in Paris, despite France’s extensive colonial history with the continent, there are few galleries dedicated to artists of African heritage.

“It’s troubling, because we are in 2022, (in) France, a country with such a strong connection to the world in general, but (especially) to Africa, and the Indies, the Caribbean,” she said. “There are more African artists who have received museum attention…in the US in the past five years than there has ever been in France in the past 50 years.”

In the forthcoming CNN Originals show “Nomad with Carlton McCoy,” in which sommelier Carlton McCoy explores the lesser-seen side of famous cities and countries, Ibrahim joined him and artist Raphaël Barontini for a home-cooked meal in Barontini’s studio in Saint-Denis, a suburb, or “banlieue” of Paris. McCoy said in the episode that he had noticed “a distinct lack of Black and Brown perspectives” in the capital’s famed museums.

“In France you’re exposed to art, but you’re exposed to the domination of a culture over others,” Ibrahim told him in the episode. “What you are seeing are works of them by them about people like us.”

Ibrahim began collecting Barontini’s work in 2019, drawn to the personal connection she felt to his work. Barontini is French, Italian and Caribbean, and Ibrahim felt a kinship to the “hybridity” of his practice, in which he silkscreens heroic African figures into regal compositions redolent of art historical European paintings.

“Constantly people are asking you to choose: What are you? Are you French, are you African?” Ibrahim said. “I refuse to do that. I don’t want to choose. I want to be everything.”

Though Ibrahim is a pioneer in bringing contemporary African diasporic art to Paris, she believes that others will soon follow.

Paris has “the right audience,” she noted. “That’s why I’m very, very optimistic about France. I do think Paris is going to be the capital of diversity.”

Here, we asked Ibrahim to share five works of art that stayed with her.

Mariane Ibrahim’s most impactful artworks

Seydou Ke​​ïta “Untitled” (1958-59)

When Ibrahim spotted a poster in a Parisian bar promoting an exhibition that featured the work of 20th-century photographer Seydou Keïta, who ran a portrait studio in Bamako, Mali, as the city transformed after colonial rule, it set her on her track to becoming a gallerist. The portrait featured, against a patterned backdrop, a man in a polished white suit and thick-rimmed glasses delicately presenting a single flower to the viewer.

“The poster, the flower, the look reminded me of my family photographs,” she said. “It just put me back into something that I was very familiar with. I was seeing my uncle, or my father’s friend holding this flower.”

Influenced by Keïta, Ibrahim’s first ever gallery show in Seattle featured the work of his peer Malick Sidibé. She reflected: “That image affected me to a point to want to start a gallery.”

Tamara de Lempicka “Young Lady with Gloves” (1930)

This sumptuous, highly stylized painting by Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka is one of Ibrahim’s favorites because it relishes in the simple pleasure of beauty. The pictured woman peers out from beneath a white wide-brimmed hat with matching gloves, resplendent in a jewel-toned green dress and a bright red lip. “I know the art world gave up on beauty in the 60s…with minimalism,” she commented. “I love maximalism.”

De Lempicka was also a rare female perspective in figurative painting, and Ibrahim appreciates the clarity of her gaze. “I am haunted by this image of the drapery and this woman in the green dress,” she said. “Everything is charged…It’s overcharged.”

Arthur Jafa “Love is the message, the message is death.” (2016)

Set to Kanye West’s gospel-infused track “Ultralight Beam,” this seven-and-a-half-minute video by artist and director Arthur Jafa is a tribute to the creative power of Black Americans amid violence and bigotry. Weaving together found video footage, Jafa creates a narrative of both collective elation and despair.

“Every single time I look at that video, it just gives me an energy that I can’t explain — an energy to destroy, and an energy to restore, to fix, to change,” Ibrahim said. “It just gives you something that brings joy and brings pain with the same intensity.”

Maimouna Guerressi, “Surprise” (2010)

The photographs of Italian Senegalese multimedia artist Maimouna Guerressi, who will be exhibiting at Ibrahim’s Chicago location later this year, are tinged with mystery, influenced by Islamic mysticism.

As a woman born in Europe who converted to Islam, Guerressi assimilated to African traditions instead of the other way around. “She’s the opposite of me,” Ibrahim said. “She adopted another culture, changed her name, changed her religion…I found that really interesting and courageous.”

In “Surprise,” a levitating woman in dramatic but austere black and white garb gazes down at two young children in white robes, the image exudes a sense of holy reverence. Speaking to Guerressi’s larger practice, Ibrahim said, “This is someone who completely immersed herself in (African Muslim) culture and just created this extraordinary body of work.”

Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du Monde” (1866)

Ibrahim was a teenager when she first encountered an image of French artist Gustave Courbet’s cropped, close-up oil painting of a reclining woman’s vulva, and she said she felt like she “couldn’t hide” from the artwork. “I’ve never seen any body displayed that way,” she said.

After the painting was commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat, it was passed around private collectors, rediscovered in an antique shop, and looted during World War II before eventually being sold at auction to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who kept it hidden behind a wooden sliding door. It has been on public display since 1995 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where Ibrahim finally saw the work in person for the first time last year. She feels the work is indicative of the experience of viewing an artwork.

“Art is supposed to make you feel slightly uncomfortable,” she said. “But you keep looking for that again and again and again.”

This story was updated to reflect that Mariane Ibrahim is not the first Black gallerist of contemporary African art in Paris, as previously stated.

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