Us of WoMA had the pleasure to meet the gallery owner behind the sensational African space Ebano Gallery in Milan. The encounter offered us the chance to run through Rabi Diop’s professional career in the art world, from her trip to Africa in search of artists to her arrival in the ultimate artistic and design district in Milan.
WoMA: To start of, tell us something about you. Who you are, where you’re from, why did you decide to start Ebano Gallery from here?
I’ve been in Italy for ten years, since I was 9 years old, growing up let’s say with an Italian adoptive family. I’ve touched the art world for the very first time when I was 9, being the first and youngest female participant at Dakar’s Biennale, I was still underage. I’ve studied at art, mosaics and other fields at various academies for a long time, from Canada to France. Later I found myself to be a textile designer and there I touched a totally different world, but one has to work and sustain himself too. I created a brand of clothes, bags, masks… a bit of everything till I had the fortune to meet an art collector, who saw my participation to the Biennale. We didn’t meet in a working context, and soon became close friends. He proposed me to start a project together, to open an African gallery with a global artistic perspective, from design, fashion to music.
That’s when I started a new chapter of my life and career; I took a bag pack and my all stars, and travelled throughout Africa in search of artists to showcase. I discovered many things, but living in a city like Milan, where most of the people, this is not a critic, see Africa as cheap, because they’re used to see African art works and clothes at the markets, or in “easy” shops, I decided to bring here something different, not cheap, but accessible and heartily, things that don’t necessarily need to receive the appreciation of everyone; I, in first person, don’t want to be liked by everyone. Exclusive artists, chosen in long time, with who I’ve lived for at least a couple of weeks to see and understand how they live and work. It’s not just about selling, it’s about the heart. This is the kind of relationship I look for, and indeed I wish that whoever enters Ebano Gallery, plunges into an easy soft ambient, and feels wow.
WoMA: You started off as an artist and later turned into a hunter of talents. How did you live and experience the change?
In a difficult way. I realized that now as a gallery owner, I couldn’t put my artistic sensitivity in practice in front of other artists, otherwise I would become tremendously jealous! I understood that I needed the vision of someone who doesn’t appreciate, but chooses, and chooses wisely. If I start to appreciate, I would become a critic, being artist myself.
WoMA: A double personality that you need to keep under control, an artistic nature on one hand, and a gallery owner’s nature on the other. What are your selection criteria? How do you choose the artists? We assume that in Africa you knew very few people, and encountered many offers.
Very difficult. When I arrived there, I experienced something crazy. I’m from Senegal, and I left a long time now. I’m not updated anymore, I felt totally lost so I relied on the ministries of culture and local galleries. One day I visited the Maison des Arts, where only artists live and work. There were around forty artists. Imagine them in a third world country seeing me coming from Europe. Everyone thought “I’m the choice”. But you have to choose one or at most two people to take here. You realize you have the power to change their lives.
What we try to do through Ebano Gallery is to give them the right push, we buy some of their art works to give them the chance to work. Think of someone who participates to the Biennale, it is surely an outstanding opportunity but after that, most artists end up doing nothing, this is because of a major lack of opportunities. So what should they do next? It is undoubtedly great to be chosen for such a great event, but there’s no continuity, no real chance to work.
WoMA: I recall something great you said before, that not everyone needs to like the artists and works you showcase here in Ebano Gallery. This leads me to think that your principal criteria is your own taste, would you agree?
Yes, it is my taste, but I also try to offer variety. If you like this, then you don’t necessarily have to like that. I don’t intend to revolutionize the world of galleries. You can find all this in Paris and in other big cities. What I want is fun and cheerfulness. I want to hear music, smell the perfume of ebony… This is what I want. Art isn’t sad. I’m not stating that most galleries are sad, but what I think is that most of them are jealous, jealous of their works. Art needs to be touched. If a spectator touches the works here, I don’t tell them not to. I cannot explain the works because I didn’t make them, I would be arrogant if I did so. Only through the touch, you can get feelings, and those feelings are the explanations. Not everyone thinks in my same way, and this may be counter productive, but this is how I see things, in my own way.
Let art be cheerful, what a wonderful aspiration. Indeed, when we first came here, we perceived a deep sense of conviviality, an environment in which to create and exalt something beautiful, and take delight together. This definitely differentiates you from the others. What is then the reaction from the Italian audience?
For me any reaction is beautiful. And the fundamental things I love to feel are to see someone appreciating the smell of ebony, someone who stares at a work completely enraptured and drops his jaw, like someone who sees a black person for the very first time and thinks: “Wow, how black is he or she”. This is enough for me.
WoMA: What type of collector may be interested in the works exhibited here?
The collector’s profile, this is an important point you’re raising. We are young; I don’t look for a rich collector. I look for ordinary people. Each one of us can potentially be a collector. Happiness and beauty. I need to grow with people. So I look for someone who is close to my age. Here, we only promote accessible art. Someone needs to believe in me, and like what I do, then I shall grow with this person.
WoMA: There is indeed a human aspect in this, not a mere commercial relationship.
Totally, a human relationship. I don’t necessarily target the rich. I rather look for someone who saves his money to buy an art work, because he likes the mask by Kifouli Dossou, that is not economically inaccessible. You can buy it at good price, and put it in your house, see it everyday and feel good because you bought something you wanted that you believed in and liked.
We are all collectors, you just need to like the work you intend to buy. I like to grow with people. Recently a kid entered in Ebano Gallery with his mother, lets call him a collector too. For instance, the necklace by Toubab Paris is not just a trend, but pure art, or the textiles by Johanna Bramble. You can buy it and turn it into a scarf, in your mind that is a beautiful hand made scarf with a beautiful history, created and designed by a beautiful woman. Why not? Hang it on a wall, its a great piece of art.
WoMA: Which are the difficulties you encountered?
I work in a design and art district, with many people that have settled here long time ago, and that I deeply respect, and from whom I’m constantly learning. Most of them are fantastic, I say most because I didn’t have the chance to meet them all. They do this job better than me, this is for sure, and it’s not easy. They have much more experience, I cannot deny it. I feel I’m welcomed here, however… there’s always a “however”. I generally don’t like saying this, but I’m a foreigner, a black foreigner, who has to live in a place where everyone has been in the art world much longer than you. I opened Ebano Gallery to promote art, fashion and design from Africa, it was and still is a big risk, because Africa has little to do here. But when you’re the last person to enter into an environment, you must adequate to it. I am personally very flexible, I simply follow their example.
WoMA: What are your aspirations and expectations for the oncoming future?
I want Ebano Gallery to become the funnel, where everything that comes from Africa – fashion, design, art – passes through here. The novelty of now, not a mere trend, because trends pass out. I want something that stays, imprinted in time. I need people who believe in what we do, I can’t do it all by myself. I accept every kind of help from anyone, from the guy who cleans the gallery everyday, to you of WoMA. This also includes the support of those who don’t understand art, it’s even preferable because they have a different kind of sensitivity. My copartner is a very sensitive person specifically to art, he knows many things and I follow him; we complete each other’s ideas, and uphold a common aim, that Ebano Gallery will become THE funnel.
Which is the aspect of African art that you personally want to show to Europe?
If you enter in here, then you must have the chance to see things that you can’t tell they’re from Africa, fine works of art. Like the wax textile, people use it a lot back in Africa, it’s a very important textile in my home country, and people wear it at the market, or ceremonies, it’s extremely beautiful. I was among the first to create a brand using this material here in Italy around 2009, in a way that people never saw before and things went superbly. But if I offered you a dress entirely made of wax textile, you wouldn’t wear it. If you wore it as a shirt and combined it with a pair of jeans, then yes. This is to let you understand that if I went to Canada and opened an Ebano Gallery there, I would definitely propose a different kind of art. Everything depends on the country you’re targeting and the taste of the local people. You must research what that country wants. Here in Italy, for instance, it wouldn’t work. People have an immense appreciation of beautiful things, you need to bring beautiful things here.
WoMA: Surmounting the expectations of what an average person has on Africa!
It’s that, I try to change the market expectations, be it of Piola, or Papignano. Nothing against this, I also go there to do some shopping, the things and merchandise are beautiful but here you find pieces of art, it’s different. This is art, design and fashion, it’s just different. You need to show it in this way, otherwise you risk of falling in the thin boundary between “cheap” and art. Indeed, in Africa you can find myriads of things and colors. However, if you aren’t careful, you risk of ending up creating a cheap market; this is what I try to avoid. Fine art, also accessible, but not cheap. And it doesn’t have to satisfy all tastes!
Anni Wu, Giorgia Papaleo, Natalia Barinova