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|The Art Dealers: Mehdi Chouakri
by Kimberly Bradley
|Nearly four years ago, Mehdi Chouakri came to Berlin to open a gallery in Mitte, the former East Berlin neighborhood that is now the city's center of contemporary art. "I always knew I wanted to open my own space," said the unassuming 28-year-old Algerian-Parisian dealer in measured English sentences. After studying art and art history at the Sorbonne and assisting for a year in the early 1990s in the Paris gallery of Brownstone, Corrèard & Cie, Chouakri knew it was time to make a move.
"It didn't take me so long to decide that I should come to Berlin," he said. "It was almost like I was arriving in a free land -- there were no proper contemporary art activities except for, once in a while, huge shows at Martin Gropius Bau or the Zeitgeist Society [a collaborative of curators]. Almost no one was showing in Berlin then," he says.
Things have certainly changed in this regard. Chouakri's intimate two-room exhibition space is located on Gipsstrasse near the axis of Berlin's burgeoning art scene, which, he says, is "very active, very open, and very international." Gipsstrasse and Auguststrasse, two streets on Berlin's East side, a few blocks away from Schinkel's monumental museums, now form a hub for contemporary art collectors and curious art lovers alike, a center that gradually grew around the pioneering art collective Kunstwerke, which opened on Auguststrasse in 1991. "It was the right place to open a gallery," Chouakri said. "When you want to start, you need to start like a little family."
A little loath to discuss the business side of art dealing, Chouakri admits he sells more art to collectors from areas outside Berlin than within it. "Berlin is still a very poor city," he said, adding that most of his buyers are from southern Germany. Chouakri noted that it was a stroke of luck to have opened his gallery at the same time as the 1996 Berlin Art Fair. "Sylvie Fleury put together this great show for me," he remembered. "There were a lot of collectors in town, and we made a good impression."
Fleury is one of the ten artists that Chouakri works with, a stable that is international but admittedly small. Others include John M. Armleder, Monica Bonvicini, Jens Haaning and Viennese artist Gerwald Rockenschaub, whose large-scale, geometric prints were on view in April in a show titled "Urban Soul Research."
The future prospects of art dealing may be dependent on the economy, but Chouakri views his own future with more sang froid, preferring to let things simply run their course. When collectors come to see new works in the gallery's small showroom, he quietly greets them in fluent German; his descriptions of the pieces are, however, peppered with French.
Is Chouakri the hottest dealer in Berlin? Maybe, but when faced with this question, he humbly jokes that "perhaps we've put the heat up too high in here. It's not about being hot or not being hot. We do a great job, and we'd like to keep going in our direction."
Change may come in one area, however -- the venue. Next year, after five years of residence on Gipsstrasse, Chouakri says he'd like to find a new space. Not necessarily bigger, just different. "I'll know it when I see it," he says with a slight smile.
Mehdi Chouakri is located at Gipsstrasse 11, 10119 Berlin. Phone 49 30 28391153; fax 49 30 28391154.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a writer, editor and translator based in New York and Hamburg.