Before opening contemporary art space M.I.A Gallery in Seattle last January, Mariane Lenhardt was working with a much older group of artists—ancient artists, in fact: the anonymous creators of Neolithic rock paintings in Somaliland. Lenhardt (who is of Somali descent) was struck by both the beauty of these 5,000-year-old paintings (cows, giraffes, dogs, many wearing adornments) and the fact that they might be destroyed by the political unrest and drought ravaging the area. Believing that such ancient art reveals “the emergence of the human imagination,” in 2006 Lenhardt gathered archeologists and created Somaliland Heritage (somalilandheritage.org), a nongovernmental organization working to gain World Heritage Status for (and thereby preservation of) the area containing the paintings. (Somaliland is currently not recognized as a nation, which complicates matters.) But given the treacherous politics of the area, she began to feel unsafe and suspended her own direct involvement in the project.
Communicating underrepresented artistic messages remains a priority, however; it’s precisely the intention of her new gallery. “It’s about the artists’ vision,” Lenhardt says. “What they’re trying to do. I want to be their voice.” M.I.A’s stated mission includes an emphasis on social change, which she hopes to achieve by introducing audiences to viewpoints they haven’t considered before (M.I.A stands for “missing in art”). “My perspective is to create a space where we can change the other by connecting with it,” she says. She hopes to break through the universally divisive feeling that everyone is a stranger to each other, and thus create connections. “If I was doing this in L.A., it might not work,” she says of the social justice aspect of her gallery, “but here I’ve found a lot of support. People in Seattle are smart and politically involved.”
Born in New Caledonia (an island off the coast of Australia), Lenhardt lived in Somalia during her early childhood; her family moved to France before the war began. She lived in France for most of her life (she attended college in London), and met her husband, Pierre, a Frenchman, when she was working in marketing in Paris. His job at Boeing brought the couple here in 2010. After landing in Seattle, she took some time to think about what she really wanted to do. Having previously worked as a freelance artist agent, she kept coming back to art and the desire to “represent artists that haven’t received the right spotlight.”
Lenhardt opened the gallery—a long, narrow space downtown on Second Avenue—with what many considered a coup: a collection of prints by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé. Operating a small photography studio in Bamako, Mali, since the early 1960s, Sidibé (born in 1936) gained acclaim for his portraits of Africans posing proudly with cherished possessions (radios, motorcycles, best dresses) as well as the shots he took at parties and celebrations. In sharp contrast to photos revealing the pain and suffering in Africa, “Sidibé gives us access to the joyousness there,” Lenhardt says. “These images make you change your ideas about Africa.” His work doesn’t elicit pity (which Lenhardt believes can feel like a violation to those pitied), because the photos are taken for the benefit of the people in them, rather than serving an assessing outsider’s gaze. “The subjects are in control of their own identities,” Lenhardt notes. “It doesn’t feel like an intrusion.”
For her second show, Lenhardt swung from an established artist to an emerging one: young French-Senegalese photographer Delphine Diaw Diallo. Having recently settled in Brooklyn, Diallo, 35, is best known for her collage work exploring personal identity and media messages, but Lenhardt is featuring her portrait photography—specifically work Diallo completed while staying with the Crow Tribe in Montana. “She tried to capture something [that seems] other to her,” Lenhardt says. The resulting black-and-white photos of modern-day Native Americans reveal “a group trying to both combine with and resist the dominant culture.”
The newest M.I.A exhibit features work by painter Soly Cissé—a show Lenhardt calls “my phenomenon of the year.” Another Senegalese artist, Cissé, 42, is known internationally for his rich, hauntingly abstracted paintings of animals, human figures and trees. (Lenhardt calls him “the African Basquiat.”) The son of a medical doctor who was vehemently against his decision to be an artist, Cissé incorporates cryptic numeric codes into his paintings—the result of his artistic beginnings when he painted on X-ray films his father brought home from work. His paintings often reflect a tension between tradition and modernity, the familiar and the imagined. “He feels possessed by the spirits of the animals he has killed while hunting,” Lenhardt notes. Interestingly, many of Cissé’s works resemble cave paintings—symbolic riddles the viewer must approach with her own system of meaning in order to parse.
Though Lenhardt’s early focus at M.I.A has been on contemporary African artists (whom she says she likes to feature because they are often taken advantage of), that group won’t be her sole purview. She says she would love to showcase contemporary Iranian art, for example. “Basically, any oppressed countries, I’m interested in,” she says, laughing. Then she adds, more seriously, “To me, art has democracy. If you can express yourself, there is no limit.”
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Exhibits: Delphine Diaw Diallo, through 5/12; Soly Cissé, 5/17–6/30