Museums can often feel like a cold, overly formal place. On one hand, that setting promotes an aura of respect around the artwork; on the other, it can lengthen the distance between the art and its viewer. “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” is an antidote to that.
“You’re going to see color, and patterns, and texture—not just in the art but in the way things are presented on the pedestals and on the walls,” says Naomi Beckwith, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which organized the exhibition, one of the largest show ever put on at the MCA. Beckwith didn’t curate it, though; that role was undertaken by Duro Olowu, a Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer. His namesake boutique in London was a harbinger of things to come—a mishmash of his own designs and a collection of pieces that appeal to his taste. The shop displays traditional and cutting-edge artworks alongside vinyl albums, books, tapestries, and decor objects. Anything goes, as long as he likes them. “He’s interested in flattening these distinctions that we may put up around art,” Beckwith says. “Like, what is fine art, and what is found art, what is inspired versus what is academic.”
“It’s like walking into the coolest museum shop with handpicked items that have been curated so perfectly by the master of all masters,” says Ikram Goldman, owner of the Ikram boutique in the Gold Coast and the person who first brought Olowu’s designs to Chicago. She met Olowu through a mutual friend in the early 2000s before he launched his label in 2004. Olowu presented his collection to Goldman in a hotel she was staying at in New York. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, I know he’s showing me these, but I know there’s a lot more magic where this came from.’ And it’s been that way ever since. He has a taste level beyond anyone I’ve ever known.”
Olowu grew up going back and forth between Lagos, Nigeria, and London. His father was Nigerian and his mother was Jamaican. The fourth of six siblings, he was raised in a large family that encouraged his artistic endeavors. Fashion has been a lifelong interest; his parents always valued the art of dressing well. His mother taught him early on how to compose a look, mixing high fashion and local West African fabrics. Once it was time to go to college, Olowu followed his father’s footsteps and studied to be a lawyer at the University of Canterbury in England in the 80s. He practiced law but began designing his own clothing and then launched his eponymous brand. He hit the jackpot when Vogue editor Sally Singer loved a dress he designed. Dubbed “The Duro dress,” it is fashioned in Olowu’s signature mix of vibrant prints and features a V-neck, empire waist, and wide sleeves, slightly evocative of a kimono. That dress led to him being named the Best New Designer at the British Fashion Awards in 2005. Since then he’s put together two critically acclaimed pop- up shops/art shows at Salon 94 gallery in New York and a blockbuster exhibit at the London Camden Arts Center in 2016 entitled “Making & Unmaking.”
Famous for creating unexpected yet harmonious combinations of vivid prints, Olowu also takes his tailoring seriously. According to Goldman, what makes his garments special is “a lightness in fabrics and extraordinary taste in color and print mix.” “He comes from a very authentic place and it translates in his collections,” Goldman says. “There is no one I know who makes clothes that are as flattering as Duro does. It all seems to fit beautifully on a body. Clearly [my clients] love him and they treasure his pieces—they come in just to get his things. He’s a treasure.”
The admiration, Olowu says, is mutual. “The manner in which the wonderful women of Chicago have supported my career in fashion and wear my womenswear collections which are sold there is really inspiring,” he says. “Like the city’s museums and private collectors, these women are enthusiastic, curious, and keen to explore new ideas in their original form. They also love quality over trend, something that is a wonderful and unique trait.” One of those women was Michelle Obama, who first discovered Olowu’s designs while her husband was running for president. She subsequently sported many of Olowu’s garments in official engagements and even got him to decorate a room in the White House for Christmas in 2015.
Now Chicagoans will have the opportunity to savor Olowu’s vision in a different way. “For me, both [curating and designing] require an intuitive eye and a free hand in order to reflect the real and cosmopolitan world we live in,” Olowu says. “I feel very lucky and inspired to be able to do both.”
Olowu’s London boutique serves as inspiration for one of the later sections of “Seeing Chicago.” Some of his designs are displayed in that area, but they are far from the central focus. The bulk of the exhibit consists of almost 350 objects, all borrowed from local public and private collections. Most of them belong to the MCA, but many come from places such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Block Museum of Art, South Side Community Art Center, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the DuSable Museum of African American History, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.
“I began with the idea of exposing and showcasing the amazing MCA Collection, which exemplifies this city’s original approach to contemporary art and culture,” Olowu says. “But I soon realized that a much more generous and open approach to the city’s public and private collections was necessary to honestly and justly convey the unique sensibility of museums and collectors in Chicago. The duty and beauty of museums is to hold up a mirror to its audience regardless of social standing or class and create a unifying experience with local and international art in a way that is a source of pride for the people of the city. The MCA has given me the opportunity to create an exhibition that I hope is an example of this.”
Some of the featured artists include turn-of-the-century groundbreakers like Henri Matisse and René Magritte, and contemporary names such as David Hammons, Barbara Kruger, Ana Mendieta, and Fred Wilson. Even though there will be works from across the world, dozens of artists connected to Chicago will be on display. Amongst them are Dawoud Bey, Simone Leigh, and Kerry James Marshall as well as leaders of local movements AfriCOBRA and the Chicago Imagists. There will be rare surrealist art books by Duchamp, Giorgio de Chirico, and Salvador Dali. “That kind of international, or what we’ve been calling cosmopolitan and transcultural view of not only the history of art but also of the city, is very important,” Beckwith says.
The way Olowu displays his selection is an art in itself. Instead of the usual stark white cube, artworks are placed against colorful walls in shades of orange, purple, and teal. Paintings and photographs are installed vertically, or “salon-style,” in arrangements that promote unexpected conversations between the pieces.
“It’s so exciting for me to see a Matisse painting mirror an African sculpture. Starting to make those kinds of leaps into our imagination is going to be really incredible,” Beckwith says. “I don’t think we realize that when we go to museums, oftentimes the work that we see in one specific gallery or in one show is usually like for like. That is to say that all the works in African sculpture are in the African galleries. All the works by French painters of the late 19th century are in another gallery by themselves. All the pottery from Asia is either in the Asian gallery or in the decorative arts gallery. We began to separate things out in ways that feel logical, but what it doesn’t often allow is for things across cultures to speak to each other, or things across time periods to live with each other. Duro kind of ignored those basic art historical claims and just asked us to realize the affinities that art may have, across the country, across the world, across time.” v