At a press preview for Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, which runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through May 10, museum director Madeleine Grynsztejn answered a question that was fair to assume would be top of mind: Why was Duro Olowu — a Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer — invited to guest-curate a show about Chicago? Why was he entrusted with the task of teaching a museum-going audience how to see the city?
"There is an American truism, going all the way back to Alexis de Tocqueville, of the sophisticated outsider sometimes offering the freshest and most candid eye and view on a cultural landscape," Grynsztejn told the crowd gathered to tour the exhibit. "Duro Olowu has cast his incredible, beautiful, gimlet eye on the city of Chicago and drawn from its great artistic holdings, both public and private, to imagine relationships across time, across artists, across objects and across media."
It's not that big of a stretch for this fashion designer to curate a museum exhibition. Olowu is married to Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. He's also proved his skill at this before, curating 2016's Making and Unmaking at the Camden Arts Center in London. But there's also an argument to be made that Olowu acts as a curator every day, within his role as a designer.
"You walk [into his London boutique], and you see immediately cultural objects," Naomi Beckwith, MCA's senior curator who collaborated with Olowu on Seeing Chicago, said during the tour. "You are surrounded by art. You are surrounded by textiles. You see piles of books … you see vinyl, music, trinkets, artifacts. And then, you see the clothes later. The clothes are an integral part of the space, obviously, but what [the boutique] is, is a broad cultural experience. And we wanted to bring some sense of that cultural experience here."
The question then turns to the designer/curator: Why was Chicago of interest to Olowu? "I first came here because I've been working with Ikram, a fantastic store, for about 16 years," he explained to the press gathered at the preview. "I was just amazed at the unique nature of the Chicago mindset. They're not followers; they do their own thing, and they're very proud of what is within their city, without showing off. And in that way I felt that sometimes you overlook actually what is there and how amazing it is."
Seeing Chicago certainly does represent a broad cultural scope. It's comprised a whopping 367 works of art that range from sculpture to painting, photography, books, textiles and more, pulled from both public and private collections. The pieces — also culled from different eras and artistic genres — are displayed salon-style, allowed to interact with each other in a way that's not typically seen in art museums.
"Both as a fashion designer and as a curator, [Duro is] interested in bringing cultures and cultural objects together in an exchange and in a conversation that allows things to speak to each other in an equal plain, without hierarchy, without a sense that one thing is superior to another, or better than another, or that one culture, one geography, one place or one history should supersede another," Beckwith noted. "And really the question for his practice is, how do we allow all this to live together, in a kind of egalitarian beauty? And you'll see that happening in the exhibition."
The exhibition is organized to reflect different genres of art, with each gallery displaying portraiture, landscape and abstraction in a more open — and oftentimes less literal — scope than how these mediums traditionally viewed.
The first room in Seeing Chicago — and the only one without a title — revolves around the city itself. The vast majority of artists represented in it are from, reside in or have made their careers in Chicago. At the center is a series of photographs by Amanda Williams depicting condemned homes on the Southwest side, which she and her students covered in bright monochrome colors as part of a guerilla beautification project.
"The beautiful thing about these colors is that they not only invoke the spirit of the community, regardless of race or gender, they also presented to me, being very much a colorist with the way I work generally, this incredible palette which Naomi and I agreed could become a basis for some of the central walls with this show," Olowu said, of the palette — which is inspired by Chicago's African-American community and reappears throughout the exhibition.
The second room, dubbed "Look at Me," is inspired by portraiture and the human figure. "It's Duro's way of not only thinking about how the figure shows up in art history but also how the figure can become something that looks at us as a spectator of art and art history," Beckwith said. "Not only are we looking at the art, but many works in this room show up as a subject gazing directly at us."
There are sculptures and two-dimensional works side-by-side, and indeed, many of the subjects are gazing right at the visitor. "It's you watching them and it's them watching you," Olowu added. "I honestly believe that that's how one should engage with art, whether you're at the Old Masters room at the Louvre or at the MCA Chicago."
Next is "Towards Abstraction," which explores artistic building blocks such as color, shape and movement. Highlights include a painting by Stanley Whitney featuring bands and blocks of color inspired by improvisational jazz, a piece by Native American artist Jeffrey Gibson that's framed in beadwork and a fiber-art work by Eduardo Terrazas.
Then, there's an interlude, housed in a gallery overlooking Lake Michigan, that's inspired by nature. That's where you'll find the only work of art commissioned specifically for Seeing Chicago: an instillation by Maren Hassinger titled "And a River Runs Through It," which indeed runs through the entire exhibit, starting at the vestibule, cutting across the center and reappearing at the very end.
The exhibition continues with "Lost in Space," which focuses on landscapes, both traditional (think an aerial view of Los Angeles by Ed Ruscha) and "implied."
That's followed by "Power to the People," a room that deals with surrealism. Though leading artists of the movement, including René Magritte and Max Ernst, are featured therein, Beckwith explained that Olowu wanted to look beyond European contributions to this genre: "There was [also] a deep Chicago version of surrealism, and a deep kind of undercurrent of surrealism in the art of Chicago throughout the 20th century, mostly figured by the Imagist movement," she said.
Finally, there's "A Second Look." Beckwith explained how the team "really wanted people to take time, again, to look at some of these relationships of object to object, images to images, and start seeing why it may be the case that they belong together, in this formation, even if it doesn't feel like the relationship is natural." This is where you really see Olowu's fashion background come into play: The room is inspired by his London boutique, its walls covered in a pattern he designed. His garments are shown in the back, on mannequins positioned as spectators gazing at the art.
Chicago holds a special place in Olowu's heart. "I chose Chicago — or Chicago chose me — because it is filled with terribly generous, terribly knowledgeable, almost nerdy, but very curious people," he said of the city that houses his latest curatorial endeavor. Ultimately, he admitted, these are "the kind of people that I like to hang out with."
Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through May 10, 2020.