Duro Olowu: Sees Chicago through an international lens at the MCA

Duro Olowu: Sees Chicago through an international lens at the MCA
Duro explains his inspiration for Seeing Chicago. along with MCA senior curator Naomi Beckwith. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer (02/28/20)

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) has just unveiled a very special exhibition, “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,” curated by the internationally acclaimed Nigerian-born British designer Duro Olowu.

Olowu is best known for his award-winning womenswear label but that is only the tip of the iceberg to his numerous endeavors.

I was curious when I heard Olowu would be curating a show at the MCA. I knew his work mostly through his designs for First Lady Michelle Obama and his designs available locally at Ikram (15 E. Huron, Chicago).

But there is a lot more to Olowu as I was about to find out.

Why Chicago?

Olowu drew inspiration for “Seeing Chicago” from the city’s political geography and its homegrown artistic movements. In a few words, the Nigerian born artist, put the city in a better perspective than many Chicago natives could,  saying:

“You stand in the middle of Chicago and there’s amazing architecture, great modernism, great Art Deco, but then there are huge areas of underprivileged housing juxtaposed with all of this. So you’re immediately confronted with these divisions.” 

Look at Me gallery. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Look at Me gallery. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Olowu recognized a certain independent streak among Chicago collectors, who, as a whole, amassed an eclectic, significant holding of works of great diversity.

He used this vision in order to put together the show making many visits to Chicago as a curator, and spending time learning about art exhibitions, institutions, movements, and galleries in Chicago, including the art holdings in museums and private homes.

The exhibition presents 360 pieces from 67 collections with more than 230 works from Chicago’s public and private collections offering a portrait of a city at times riven with racial and class divisions but also unified by a particular zeal for making, collecting, and sharing great art.

Works for the exhibition were loaned from public collections such as the Art Institute of Chicago, Block Museum of Art, South Side Community Art Center, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art; artists’ collections including Richard Hunt, and the Estate of Archibald Motley, Jr.; and individual Chicago collectors who have made major, selfless contributions to many cultural institution around the city.

Chicago artists are showcased throughout the show with names including Archibald Motley, the Imagists, the AfriCOBRA black arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and contemporary artists including Bey, Kerry James Marshall, Nick Cave and Theaster Gates plus up-and woodworker Nate Young.

The exhibition is divided into 8 sections: Introduction, Look at Me, Toward Abstraction, Lake Gallery, Lost in Space, Power to the People, Library and Second Look.

For an understanding of his process and revelations behind it listen here for the audio experience that features narration from Olowu himself and quotes from some of the artists in the exhibition.

Second Look

Olowu’s idea of a “Second Look” has become a model for spending respectful time with an object and giving attention to those objects that are either overlooked or even hypervisible to the point of not offering any more discoveries.

A second look is the mode by which Olowu was able to visit Chicago and offer a new connection and meaning into the city’s collections.

The finale gallery is the space that best reflects Olowu’s “Second Look.”

The west wall of the gallery features a collection of magnificent art by Henri Matisse, Kerry James Marshall, Jean Arp, Yto Barrada, and Brice Marden. On the other side of the gallery, the facing east wall features about 30 mannequins all dressed up in pieces from Olowu’s womenswear collections over the past 14 years,”

Olowu sums it up saying, “They are looking at the art, and at you.”

Second Look gallery. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Second Look gallery. Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

About Olowu

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to a Nigerian father and Jamaican mother, Olowu’s first eponymous collection in 2004 was a critical hit with the fashion world and sold out internationally. It featured the now signature “Duro” dress, hailed by both British and American Vogue as the dress of the year in 2005. That same year, he won the prestigious New Designer of the Year Award at the British Fashion Awards.

Olowu was also awarded TopShop’s ‘NEWGEN’ sponsorship, and in 2010, he was named Best International Designer at the African Fashion Awards in South Africa and was one of six finalists for the Swiss Textiles Award in Zurich. Alluring silhouettes, sharp tailoring, original prints juxtaposed with luxurious fabrics in off-beat yet harmonious, combinations became Olowu’s signature. His collections are a reflection of his interpretation of an international style that is timeless and relevant. His curatorial projects “Material” in 2012 and “More Material” in 2014 at Salon 94 Gallery in New York met with critical praise by the art world.

He lives between London and New York.

What, When, Where

What: Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago
When: now through May 10, 2020
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Tickets: Click here

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