Look 16 from Duro Olowu’s spring/summer 2020 collection
Scroll through fashion designer Duro Olowu’s Instagram, and it’s clear that the Nigerian-born fashion designer has more on his mind than just pretty clothes. Egyptian artifacts, cloud-filled skyscapes, vintage portraits and art, art, art—his tastes are as catholic as his designs are colorful. That same aesthetic permeates Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, in which Olowu casts his gaze toward our fair city. Organized with MCA Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith, the result is a fascinating mix of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films drawn from public and private art collections across the city. We delve deeper into the just-opened exhibition with Beckwith.
What draws you to Olowu’s work in fashion?
His garments are like well-crafted sculptures—they take beautiful, timeless forms and often have richly textured surfaces as a result of the surprising mix of colors, patterns and fabrics. Olowu’s ability to bring these various fabrics together mirrors the way he can really absorb inspiration from many times and cultures and bring them in conversation with each other. Best of all, one never feels like one is trying to be anyone else but the best version of oneself when wearing Olowu’s clothes—you are as authentic as they are.
Jonas Dovydenas, “Kevin Henry at the Annual Midwest Fleadh Cheoil Music Competition, Bogan High School” (1977)
Why is it important to examine Olowu’s impact outside of fashion?
Olowu has had a long relationship with the arts—he’s run an art gallery, has a lifelong habit of visiting galleries and museums whenever possible, and counts artists as some of his closest friends. In addition, Olowu’s life and background was shaped by moving through and in many cultures—he’s born to a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father; has lived in Nigeria, England and France; and spends a great amount of time traveling. He’s cultivated such a deep knowledge of global art and design that his cosmopolitan and transcultural outlook gives us a fresh look at ways to put art together at the MCA and beyond.
What inspired the format of the exhibition?
The show started with the MCA Collection at its core and then expanded to other museums and collections around the city. We are now mounting one of the largest shows in MCA history! The art will be hung salon-style in the fourth-floor galleries in a way that doesn’t separate art based on where it is from or who made it. There are no hierarchies here—craft is equal to fine art and self-taught artists are right beside contemporary masters. It’s a truly democratic exhibition where even the wall colors are inspired by works in the show made by Chicago artists.
Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Your moments of joy have the precision of military strategy)” (1980, black-and-white photograph), from the collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky
Why have Olowu look critically at Chicago?
Olowu always says that he admires the ways Chicagoans dress with a savoir-faire and an independent streak. He recognized that same cultivated independence in the way people and institutions collect art—we don’t tend to follow trends here. The world’s most interesting objects speak to each other; in Chicago you can find outstanding French surrealist paintings, art deco furniture, ceramics, fine West African objects and contemporary art by Chicago artists sitting beside Byzantine sculptures in the same collection. Olowu wants to replicate that intuitive energy and offer what he terms the “second look,” an act of taking time with something you thought you knew in order to find new inspiration in it.
What does his perspective of the city teach us?
Olowu has held up a mirror to Chicago and wants us to see ourselves as he has—a leading art center with major institutions sustained by thoughtful, energetic supporters. It reminds us that Chicago, too, is a cosmopolitan city that has been shaped by many cultures, traditions and tastes. We’re fortunate to have so many treasures here that give shape to such a massive and timely exhibition.
Through May 10, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Photography by: Luis Monteiro; Courtesy of the MCA Chicago; By Nathan Keay/© MCA Chicago