When Hannah Traore was working on her undergraduate honors thesis in art history at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, she began exploring the work of Malick Sidibé, whose legendary studio portraits and street photography featured everyday people in Mali, where her father is from. Skidmore has a renowned university art museum, the Tang Teaching Museum, and in 2017, Traore organized an exhibition there titled “Africa Pop Studio” that included Sidibé’s work and that of various artists he had influenced, including Derrick Adams, Zanele Muholi, Aida Muluneh, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, and Hassan Hajjaj, who collaborated with Traore on the exhibition’s colorful installation.
“From then on, I knew I wanted to open a gallery because I realized I wanted to go down the curatorial route,” Traore said in an interview. “But you can’t always realize your true vision in someone else’s space: one, they won’t let you, and two, you want to keep that close to you. I realized early on I would have to do it in my own space.”
That goal is now a reality, as Traore has launched her own gallery in New York’s Lower East Side, in a move spurred on by reflecting on her career amid the pandemic. Traore, who was been a curatorial intern at the Museum of Modern Art and worked at Fotografiska New York, looked for spaces in the Lower East Side because she was drawn to the possibility of the foot traffic her gallery might attract outside of the art world. Set in a space that was for years home to a fur shop run by the current landlord’s family and later became a Weedmaps store, Hannah Traore Gallery is located at 150 Orchard Street, not far from Perrotin, Proxyco, and James Fuentes. The gallery’s first show, which opened on Thursday, is titled “Hues” and features the work of artists of color who foreground bold tones in their work, such as Wendy Red Star, Patricia Renee’ Thomas, Muzae Sesay, Camila Falquez, and Jeffrey Cheung.
Alongside the main area where “Hues” is on view is a backroom “for different kinds of exhibitions where artists can play more and for more immersive experiences—larger-than-life installations,” Traore said. Inaugurating it is “Mi Casa Su Casa,” a group show organized by Hajjaj that features his work alongside that of 14 emerging artists from Morocco, arranged salon-style.
When she worked on the exhibition at Skidmore, Traore wanted the exhibition’s installation to “feel like an African portrait studio,” so she reached out to Hajjaj to see if he would be interested in collaborating. Hajjaj agreed, and he designed an installation with bright red and yellow walls, chandeliers made from recycled materials, and poufs for sitting. The two met at that exhibition’s closing reception and have stayed in contact over the years. When she was planning the opening of her gallery, she reached out to see if he would be interested in doing a show.
Instead of doing a solo show, as he had just had one at New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery last year, Hajjaj proposed a similar installation to the one they had worked previously that would put his work in conversation with younger artists. It’s also a continuation of similar programs Hajjaj has done in Morocco and elsewhere throughout his career. “I’ve seen all this new talent come up in Morocco, like a big wave all of a sudden,” Hajjaj said. “Hannah showed my work in 2017—to see this young person believe in what I do and bring my work to Upstate New York, and now to see her career develop with her own gallery, is a beautiful moment. That was just the beginning of the journey she’s taking.”
In the gallery’s first year, Traore’s programming will run the gamut of showcases for emerging, mid-career, and established artists, including solo shows and installations for Renee Cox, Anya Paintsil, Camila Falquez, and James Perkins. Initially, the gallery will not represent artists, but Traore said she hopes that will be a “natural progression” as the gallery grows.
Her primary focus will be on presenting the work of “artists who have traditionally been left out of the conversation—and when they’ve been brought into the conversation, it’s often been in a performative way,” she said. “I think the dynamic changes a lot when the person giving the platform is in multiple underrepresented groups as well. I’m a Black immigrant woman. I’m an immigrant here because I’m Canadian, and in Canada I grew up with an immigrant father from Mali. I’m Muslim, and I’m Jewish.”
She continued, “I’m not doing this for clout. I think it’s really different when you look at some of the Chelsea galleries who haven’t been showing these artists ever but then after the summer of the murder of George Floyd, suddenly all their new artists are Black. I think that’s problematic, and can be—and has been—quiet damaging. I’m working with artists whose work I appreciate and love and who I think deserve this platform.”