Opening Day- Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago at The Museum of Contemporary Art

Drawing from the city’s public and private art collections, including works in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) collection, Duro Olowu curates a show that reimagines relationships between artists and objects across time, media, and geography. The Nigerian-born British fashion designer believes in the idea of the “second look” that there is meaning in the act of seeing something again and anew.  Moving away from traditional exhibition formats, Olowu combines photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films in dense and textural scenes that incorporate his work. On the opening day of the exhibition, Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, Olowu discusses the themes, process, and revelations of building this exhibition with MCA Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn, introduced by Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith.


The first table setting question that Grynsztein presents to Olowu is “Why Chicago?” Olowu expresses that he is happy to be featured in Chicago’s style and art culture. “My first encounter with this city was through fashion. I felt familiar and comfortable, and I was in awe of how the women dress regardless of social and financial status. Chicago is full of inhabitants that are welcoming but not to be trifled with. They know what they want.”  In addition to being inspired by the everyday people of Chicago, the way Olowu designs and curates are grounded in how he walks through the world with a transcultural perspective, and what he was surrounded by as a child. Olowu lends this perspective to institutions, museums, and private art holdings in Chicago.

Grynstein credits Olowu with having an unbelievable “aesthetic antenna” when curating an exhibit. Olowu says he approaches his exhibits with a “What’s in the bag?” concept. At times, based on instinct, and his ability to see relationships between all forms of creativity, Olowu would curate items and works that he sees in museums, homes, or in great institutions. “There is always more to behold and new ways of seeing.  Conceiving the idea behind the show, I was overcome by a need to make it something that visitors would remember for the right reasons. Not necessarily for the names of the particular artists, not even necessarily because of the exhibition brought together so many different genres and ideas about art, but more because the exhibition is a celebration of what art and museums can mean to a community.”

Olowu’s process of looking again at art in Chicago’s many collections resulted in the selection of more than three hundred works (half from the MCA), featuring artists from different eras, countries, and identities with some of the works side by side, and some works in juxtaposition with others. A cast of mannequins dressed in Olowu’s garments are portrayed as fellow museum visitors. They were all facing a wall and fixated on a collage-like display of artwork. “These galleries are meant to be a leisurely stroll through an art collection that has come from a city that is both beautiful to inhabit and beautiful to walk through. Chicago has an incredible and unique landscape that seems to capture a sense of space, while at the same time feeling very close-knit.” Although Olowu’s fashion designs are included in the exhibition, he was careful not to make it gratuitous.  Olowu expresses that fashion is not art, although it can be artistic.

The extraordinary exhibition is loosely structured around thematic sections, with a concluding gallery that echoes Olowu’s London space. Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago exhibition will run until May 10, 2020.

Contributing Writer- Kelly Washington

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