When I first set out to profile gallerist and art dealer Mariane Ibrahim, she didn’t exactly decline, but she didn’t immediately say yes, either.
After being heavily profiled over the past couple of years—both for her curatorial style as well as her unconventional path to Chicago’s gallery scene via Seattle—the gallery’s focus was understandably on its artists and program in general, versus Ibrahim herself. Her roster of represented artists is indeed magnificence rising, and she’s been praised for “championing young artists of the African diaspora.”
In September 2019, after seven years in Seattle, Ibrahim moved her gallery to Chicago. Two years later, she inaugurated a second gallery in Paris (which is where Ibrahim lived before moving to the United States). I visited her gallery in Paris in January of this year. In reconsidering my approach to this profile, I found inspiration in the work of artist Carmen Neely, whose paintings were included in the Paris gallery’s second show, a dual exhibit of Neely’s large-scale abstract paintings alongside artist Ferrari Sheppard’s figuration works.
I had seen Neely’s paintings online prior to making Ibrahim’s gallery a destination while in Paris, and I was immediately enamored with the writerly energy she brings to her work. Neely’s practice of collecting memories and conversations—in sweeping brushstrokes of fuschia, purple, and cyan concealing underwritten layers of journal entry and personal archives—is the purest form of storytelling.
Neely’s own story mirrors Ibrahim’s in many ways, which is why fulfilling the technical subject of this profile’s wish to do so through her artists and their work first and foremost is actually really easy.
In 2020, Neely left a job in academia to pursue her practice of painting full time.
“I came to Chicago with that goal and intention, really not knowing anything else,” she said. “I immediately put feelers out and requested support from literally anyone I knew who had any connections to anybody [here].”
She ended up meeting Ibrahim through some mutual acquaintances not long after arriving in Chicago.
“I had known about her gallery and sort of been following what she was doing, but it wasn’t even necessarily that I moved to Chicago for that to happen. I just felt pulled towards [Chicago] . . . in some weird universal way I was also pulled to the gallery. I think everything that’s happened has been part of that sort of invisible attraction, because it has all felt so—sort of—seamless, and the fit feels so natural, and it’s been easily supportive and not just from [Ibrahim] and the gallery, but from the community in Chicago. Now I’ve been here for two years.”
What initially made me want to write about Ibrahim was an interview I read with her in ARTNews magazine, specifically this quote about Chicago and why she chose this city when considering where she’d relocate her gallery:
“Chicago appealed to her for its particular kind of American-ness. ‘I felt like for the first time I was in America,’ she said of her first visit a few years ago. ‘New York is so international—it’s its own country, in a way—but in Chicago I felt like, this is the capital of America, with all its history and architecture and economy and politics.’”
Ours is a city that is getting increasingly widespread attention for its gallery scene, and West Town specifically is quickly emerging as Chicago’s emergent gallery district. Mariane Ibrahim Gallery’s location at Paulina and Hubbard is a stone’s throw from the Monique Meloche Gallery and just a short walk to Chicago Avenue, i.e. “gallery row,” now home to the “Grand Dame’s” eponymous Rhona Hoffman Gallery, PATRON—all of which Ibrahim noted as galleries she admired in her ARTNews interview—ARC Gallery, and so many more.
Now having had a presence in Chicago for three years, and in the midst of increasing coverage of Chicago’s art scene, Ibrahim said she still feels like Chicago has been the best decision for her gallery and program.
“The city has not failed to continue to garner the gallery’s vision, while also continuing to be a key advocate for the importance of culture,” Ibrahim told me via email.
Neely moved to Chicago from Oklahoma, “a very conservative space.”
“I felt like I was the only dark-skinned person in [my work] department and surrounding departments on faculty,” she said. “And during that time COVID really hit, and we started isolating, and then George Floyd was murdered, and I’m kind of feeling like I’m on an island . . . I came to Chicago not knowing a lot about it—just knowing that there was an arts community and that there were some really successful people who kind of built a practice there and then stayed for a long time, and I thought that must mean something.”
In the same 2019 interview with ARTNews about her move to Chicago, Ibrahim also noted the sense of community within Chicago’s art scene as a factor in her decision. When I asked her how she perceives that community now, she said the same sense of congeniality continues.
“We continue to embrace each other, in ways you don’t see in other cities,” she said via email. “It is common for dealers to have dinner, to attend one another’s openings, to recommend clients and visitors to each other’s spaces. We emphasize our success is each other’s success, it is a fluidity that attracts people to Chicago, and what the city stands for.”
Neely was not officially represented by Ibrahim at the time of her group show in Paris, but now she is. When Ibrahim’s official representation of Neely was announced in late March of this year, Neely once again spoke of the community in Chicago that attracted both her and Ibrahim.
“Mariane and I both took major leaps of faith investing in this city as transplants, and have found so much support and community here,” she said in an internal press release. “It’s truly energizing to be aligned in this way. I’m excited to continue expanding with the gallery in our growth outside of this space, but there’s something that feels really special about having an anchor together in Chicago.”
“Carmen is poetic,” Ibrahim said via email. “She has an ability to express emotive energy through strokes, color and composition in a way that is esoteric, and beautiful. We are thrilled to have her in our program, and as our first local Chicago artist.”
When I spoke with Neely for this piece, she had just returned to the States after a seven-week stint in Europe, including Paris. I shared with her Ibrahim’s quote that originally inspired me, about Chicago as the capital of America.
“Especially since I’m just coming from this seven-week long stint in Paris and in Europe, which is a space in which she grew up in and was from . . . I understand maybe in this moment that particular contrast that’s resonating with her that maybe I wouldn’t have in the same way if I hadn’t just had this experience,” Neely said.
“I understand the contrast between Chicago and Paris and how they actually work interestingly together. The fact that she has galleries in these two cities that have these very different feelings . . . it feels very balanced in a way. And . . . Mariane has mentioned to me how she also feels like she hasn’t been in Chicago for very many years, but it’s a home to her, too.”
Throughout her time in Europe, Neely journaled. She sees writing as a natural extension of her painting practice, which is not only an exercise in documenting, but translating.
“When you’re in a space that is unfamiliar or you’re confronted by people’s interpretation of you . . . that is something that [we’re] not necessarily used to living with every day, you suddenly have this heightened sense of awareness of new things about yourself and other people. That inevitably, I think, stimulates growth, but also makes you become even more aware of the ways that you live day-to-day in the familiar space that you occupy.”
For now, and hopefully for always, Neely and Ibrahim both occupy Chicago.
“Really just in two years I’m like, ‘I’m sure that this is the place that I should be and I want to be,’” Neely said. “And I am so excited and energized by the spirit of the arts community in Chicago.”
Neely’s first gallery solo exhibition will take place in Chicago at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery during Spring/Summer 2023.
Editor’s note: a previously published version of this story reported that Ferrari Sheppard is represented by Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. We have since learned that this is incorrect. The Reader regrets the error.