Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt interviewed trenton flock // photography by Megumi arai
It is hard to know where to begin when talking about someone like Mariane Ibrahim-Lenhardt—with her background, her job, her passions, her artists? They are all inextricably bound by a far-reaching vision. To put it succinctly, she’s a perfect example of a twenty-first-century cosmopolitan, which is a phrase I don’t use lightly. The twentieth-century cosmopolitan was typified by a self-indulgent jet-setter for whom the novelty of world travel was a benign extension of imperialism, but Ibrahim-Lenhardt is of a more evolved sort that uses increased mobility and communication to heal historical scars rather than benefit from them. Her sophisticated style and expertise are a reflection of the more compassionate, borderless world she hopes to see come about, and in effect become an irresistible endorsement of it.
She founded M.I.A Gallery in 2012 in downtown Seattle to show work from international contemporary artists. The last few years have been quite busy, as she has also been organizing exhibitions in other cities, from Hong Kong to London, and collaborating with artists, curators and intellectuals around the world. I’m catching her in the small window she has in Seattle at the end of September. A few days before, she was on a panel speaking to architecture students with Dave Adjaye at Harvard. The two of them were finishing the installation of a new show, Luminós/C/ity.Ordinary Joy which they curated from the Jean Pigozzi Contemporary African Art Collection. It’s the inaugural show of the new Ethelbert Cooper Gallery, Harvard University’s first gallery dedicated to African and African American Art. Ibrahim-Lenhardt gave a private art tour of the new installation to Oprah Winfrey and Steve McQueen before flying back to Seattle. In a few days, she leaves for the Frieze Art Fair in London, then returns at the end of the month to prepare the next installation at M.I.A Gallery. Despite her packed schedule, she still wishes she could do more traveling—and not for leisure, but rather to further push her passion: uniting and supporting creative minds around the world who foster more awareness of diverse cultures, question our own assumptions about identity, seek solutions for social and environmental ills, from Africa to Europe and Asia and beyond. And though her business is based in Seattle, she is always happy to be back in Africa, which she still calls home. Or rather, as she puts it while gesturing with her whole body, “Africa is more than home. It is I.” Ibrahim-Lenhardt was born in Noumea, New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, which she describes lovingly as “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” Her family moved to Somalia when she was very young, and it was there that she developed her deepest roots. But to her dismay, they moved again to Paris shortly before Mohammed Siad Barre was deposed.
“We didn’t want to leave, but my father was very smart. He saw the coup coming.” The move left Ibrahim-Lenhardt feeling “dislocated,” and though she adapted to the her new environment, she hoped to return to Africa. She did in 2003, and lived in Somalia until 2006. “Those were some of the happiest, richest years of my life. Those years, 2003 through 2006, made me the person I am, who does what I do.” While in Africa, Ibrahim-Lenhardt saw a rich world of contemporary art that was not being shown much internationally, and the impetus for her gallery was initially to “show what was not being shown,” to reflect “the multitude of layers in African art” and also address the misconceptions that persist in the west about the African continent. “Sometimes people assume, or want to think that because I am African I have to show African art. It’s not the case. I’m showing African art because I feel there is a big gap. There’s a big blank. There’s something to be said.” “My Africa is not perfect; it has a lot of issues, like everywhere. I am not trying to create a global understanding of Africa. I’m talking about regions—and more than regions. I’m talking about subcultures in big regions, which is really a tiny window into the world.” For the casual observer, this might simply be a curiosity, a joyous glimpse of humanity’s diverse self-expression, but her interest in subcultures stems from a deeper desire to confront stereotypes about what Africans are and are not: “Africans don’t listen to heavy metal. Africans are not dandies...” The list goes on, and many entries on that list are matters of cultural appropriation, which typically flows only one way. That is, empire may appropriate what it will from other cultures, but turnabout is resisted or treated as illegitimate. After all, a
paralyzed culture is more easily absorbed. Ibrahim-Lenhardt’s opposition to this is evident in the artists with whom she works, who come from all over the world, not just Africa. Those artists who are of African descent are all still working within Africa, but speak to issues that are globally relevant. Others with different origins move across cultures fluidly, with devotion and respect. Some work to reinvigorate and document subcultures, reversing the cultural flow of appropriation and allowing for re-appropriation. Some question and inform identity—whether individual or continental—and encourage sovereignty based in cultural literacy. Some do it all, and taken as a whole, the work show at M.I.A Gallery closes the distance between people and cultures while enabling more pluralistic expression. “Someone who has been following my work and the shows that I have exhibited will see that they are all connected,” she says. “And each one is a chapter, part of a big book, and that book—if it continues like this—will make people realize that we have to cultivate our differences, but we also have to embrace our similarities.” Regarding re-appropriation, Ibrahim-Lenhardt explains, “Everything is blurred. Hybridity and our ability to make cultural fusion is, to me, the future. Mixing is the future.” Her “optimistic, futurist” vision is the foundation of M.I.A Gallery’s mission, and each of her artists have a unique approach consistent with this mission. Of course, the context of that mission isn’t immediately apparent to everyone, and the relatively low diversity in Seattle and its geographical distance from the origins of her artists—be they from Africa, Europe or Asia—presents challenges and rewards. “Before a person will collect from me, I have to educate them. That is my primary job in Seattle: I educate people about what’s happening, what I’m showing—then comes the
Published on Dec 6, 2014
Craft & Culture presents Ledger issue 3. www.craftandculture.com Craft & Culture Ledger Issue III is a large format magazine chock full o...