After years of studying art history, learning about the European greats, and taking on curatorial internships at the Museum of Modern Art and Fotografiska, the curator Hannah Traore has cultivated her own views on the world of fine art. Traore, who is of Malian descent and grew up in Toronto, has just opened her own gallery in New York’s Lower East Side—a space focused on hosting artists who have been “historically left out of the conversation,” and a place that centers the needs of the artist first.
At MoMA, where Traore interned through the affiliate group Black Arts Council, the young curator worked alongside Yasmil Raymond, who “drilled into my head” the idea of catering to artists especially. “Everything we do is for the artists,” Traore tells me during a recent Zoom interview from her home in Brooklyn. “I already felt that inside me, but she really pushed that point home.”
As a result, Hannah Traore Gallery, a colorful space that’s laid out much like a salon, has a personality that goes against the grain of the typical white-walled exhibition hall. Currently on view: “Mi Casa Su Casa,” a show curated by Hassan Hajjaj and Meriem Yin; and “Hues,” a group show that examines color and race. “I don’t think you’re ever ready to do something like this until you just do it,” Traore says. “But I was bursting at the seams to do what I wanted to do.” In conversation with W, Traore shares her perspectives on Black inclusion in the art world and her favorite young artists of the moment.
How did the idea for “Hues” come about?
While doing research for this exhibition, I realized a huge through line for me was color. I look back to my grandmother, who was a painter—she painted with beautiful color. The old masters, the artists whom she really loved and idealized, were great colorists. All these artists I wanted to feature were working with bright and interesting colors. As the show developed, I realized our society and our art world expects artists of color to discuss their race in their work. It can be beautiful if that’s what the artist wants, but not all artists want to work that way. This is a question I talk about a lot with artists: Are you a black artist or are you an artist who happens to be black? A lot of artists would say the first, and a lot of artists would say the latter—and they should have that choice. I thought color was a really beautiful way to focus on the formality and let the work breathe and exist in a different way. I really tried to make it diverse in terms of race, but also diverse in terms of medium: I wanted to have a fiber artist, photographers, sculptors, and painters.
Photographed by Camila Falquez
Do you feel like a true push for diversity is happening in the art world?
I do think that there was a huge shift in the world, as well in the art world, after George Floyd’s murder. A lot of galleries were already doing the work, and many more galleries realized it was the right thing to do—but there are still galleries and institutions, in my opinion, that are embracing it in quite a performative way. And it’s very obvious which is which. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to be a Black woman opening a gallery—my friends of color and I were saying two summers ago that the world woke up, but we’ve been saying this for years. None of this is new to us.
Still, I feel very mixed about what’s happening. I was sitting at dinner one night during The Armory Show week and I overheard someone talking about the booth that she was working at, how they were showing a Black artist. She said to her friends, “Black art is such a trend right now. It’s so in.” I think it can be quite dangerous, because with the market being so saturated, sometimes galleries aren’t doing the work to find great artists. There are enough Black artists for every single gallery in New York to show an incredible piece, but because their attempt at inclusion is performative, they find an artist who’s average if that and they’re showing that work. And that is what the world sees Black art as. That’s very damaging.
Often, the only type of Black art these galleries and institutions show is figurative; it doesn’t help their image if they’re showing an abstract Black artist. I remember having this meeting with this guy who wanted to talk about art—the conversation ended up being me just explaining to him why his views are racist. One thing he said to me was, “All Black artists do is figurative work.” I was like, even though I want to strangle you right now, I actually understand why you think that. You haven’t done research at all, because all that you’re exposed to is figurative art.
Who are some contemporary gallerists and curators making a non-performative change?
I’m in no way the first—I shouldn’t be, it’s 2022. There are quite a few women who I look up to: Nicola Vassell, Ebony Haynes. There are also some women who don’t have brick-and-mortar spaces that I love, like Stephanie Baptist, she runs Medium Tings, which is an incredible gallery. Of course, there are curators like Isolde Brielmaier, who’s my mentor. Thelma Golden, obviously. There are all these amazing Black women doing their thing in this industry. And I feel very lucky to come after them.
Who was one of the first artists that caught your eye before you became a curator?
When I was little, Degas was my favorite artist. I read books all about Degas and his dancers, my umbrella was Degas. But it’s funny, now, knowing that Degas was a very creepy character, watching these little girls dance. Although I still love those kinds of artists, I don’t relate to them as much as I used to.
Which emerging artists are you loving right now?
I’m really interested in James Perkins. His process is something I haven’t really seen before; he makes what he calls paintings, but they could easily be considered earthworks or sculptures. He puts dyed silk onto stretchers so they look like paintings, and then he brings them to the beach and lets them sit there. They get dyed by the sun, the sand affects the way that they come out, obviously the water, the salt in the air, the rain—but he’s gotten really good at manipulating that. When you look at his work online, it looks like a painting. But you look in person and it’s on silk. I think part of the reason he isn’t getting his moment is because it’s abstract. You cannot see his race in his work.
I love Bony Ramirez—the first time I saw his work was a couple years ago at the Jeffrey Dietch show Shattered Glass, in L.A. Kezia Harrell’s work is figurative, and amazing. She’s so detailed when it comes to painting rolls, cellulite, and stretch marks. Technically, I think her work is really exciting. I love the fiber work of Anya Paintsil; she uses her real hair in the work, which I always find super fun. Another one I love is Woody De Othello, he’s a painter and sculptor.
Let’s get into the Culture Diet questions. What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Put my glasses on. Honestly, I wish I had a morning routine, but I absolutely don’t. So the first thing I do in the morning is get ready as fast as I possibly can to make it to my first meeting.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Ways of Seeing, an art history book.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
There’s this one account, and it’s this guy who interviews children on the street. It brings me so much joy—you have no idea. Tracee Ellis Ross, obviously. I’m absolutely obsessed. I follow a lot of accounts that are about the history of West Africa and Mali.
Which TV shows are keeping you up at night?
Sex and the City, I just gotta say it. I’ve been obsessed forever.
Are you watching And Just Like That?
Yes. I understand why they did what they did—I get it. It’s trying a little hard in some places, but that’s okay. I don’t care what anyone says—it’s so lovely to see my characters again. I feel like they’re my friends. I’m rewatching Black Mirror, which is one of my favorite shows of all time. And a show that I watch just for fun all the time is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
What songs have you had on repeat lately?
“Ye” by Burna Boy. Any Burna Boy song, to be honest.
What was the last piece of art that you bought or ogled?
The last piece of art I bought was by Tyler Mitchell. It’s called “Untitled Group Hula Hoop.” It was the first piece of art that I bought for myself. The piece that I want buy is by Malick Sidibé. First of all, he’s Malian. Second of all, the show that I curated at school positioned him as the cornerstone of contemporary Black and African photography. I really connect with his studio photography especially.
What is the final thing that you do before you go to bed?
If it’s a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, the New York Times crossword. I can’t do it after that, it’s too hard. Then, I have the Calm app, so I listen to stories until I fall asleep.