Designer Duro Olowu Sees the Past, Present, and Future of Chicago

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When the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Naomi Beckwith decided to dedicate an entire exhibit to the city’s cultural treasures, she looked to fashion pioneer Duro Olowu as her partner.

From their earliest discussions about the project—which would eventually become Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, open nowthe curator knew that Olowu was the right fit. “[He] has a long history of moving across and in between cultures, and he has spent a great deal of time training his eye,” she explains to CR. “He can bring objects together in the most surprising juxtapositions—an ancient piece from Greece next to a beautiful, modern Indian sculpture under a German abstract painting—with true love and respect for all the objects of the world.”

Since founding his eponymous label in 2004, Nigerian-born, London-based Olowu has displayed a unique eye for pattern, fabric, and silhouette, which quickly bolstered him to international acclaim. Major British and American fashion magazines named his signature Duro dress as the dress of the year in 2005—and the same year, he was recognized as the New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. Since then, Olowu has gone on to dress the likes of Solange Knowles, Iris Apfel, and Michelle Obama—whom he also collaborated with to decorate the White House for Christmas 2015. Together, they transformed the Vermeil Room with opulent décor, including teddy bears made from vintage African fabrics.

In recent years, the designer has combined his love of fashion and art in exhibitions curated for New York’s Salon 94 and London’s Camden Arts Centre. For Seeing Chicago, Olowu leveraged his global vantage to connect works with the city’s spirit of diversity. His interdisciplinary approach brings together a mélange of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films, highlighting Chicago-based artists, AfriCOBRA and the Chicago Imagists. “I wanted to show old school, curious collecting from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, along with community and philanthropic collecting, in a forward-thinking way,” Olowu tells CR. “The exhibition is about the city itself—it has the spirit of avant-garde, contemporary, and conceptual art.”

Seeing Chicago is a pictorial in its own right with thematic twists on ways of conventionally seeing art. Inside, Olowu infuses the museum space with works from 19th century greats to the names defining contemporary art today, joining them in “salon-style” hanging that echos 17th century French mixed assemblages. Even the walls, pedestals, and plants were colored to reflect the artists’ palettes of orange, purple, and teal. “The exhibition’s physical organization invites us to see the visual rhymes between the works of exceptional artists such as Alice Neel, Simone Leigh, and Cy Gavin,” says Beckwith.

Olowu searched broadly to find the exhibit’s works, guided by what he loves most about the city. “It was intuitive how it came together—the variety of having Matisse, Louise Bourgeois, and Glenn Ligon in the same space with Rashid Johnson, Martin Puryear, and Lorna Simpson,” says Olowu. “I did not purposefully seek any of the art—the artwork itself called me. The works and the artists all deserve to be there.”

Most of all, the exhibition is anchored by an emphasis on equality and art’s ability to stand in as common ground. Designer Olowu has long been one to seek deeper meaning, whether referencing African culture in his patterns, or fusing a chorus of artistic voices in his curations. His approach underscores a “second look,” the idea that repeat experiences—and not just first impressions—are important in art, and in life. “In bringing the works together, I thought of children and their unhampered mindset, before any rules set in,” says Olowu. “There is a relationship between the eye and the heart, outside of genres and contexts. One of the joys of art is that it can bring people together—through diversity and unification, all divisions are gone.”

Seeing Chicago is not only an exhibition of the city’s art, but also a mosaic of its diverse composition and cultural virtues. Olowu conducts the works together as symbols of the many ways the city can be seen, and in unexpected ways that art can be seen. Highlighting a spectrum of views outside our own, this showcase emerges from his “second look” at the city and its art, seeing it anew through its profound, meaningful connections.

Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago is now on view until May 10, 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

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createdAt:Mon, 09 Mar 2020 20:30:06 +0000
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