Duro Olowu said his affinity for Chicago runs parallel to his rise as a critically-acclaimed fashion designer.
“Ikram in Chicago ... she was one of my first stockers internationally,” the London-based designer said. Olowu was referring to the high-end boutique in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood owned by Ikram Goldman, whose customers have included Michelle Obama and Oprah.
When Olowu visited Goldman in Chicago, he would absorb the city’s art scene. That’s when he experienced what he calls Chicago’s “respect for creativity.” In addition to the art at museums and galleries, Olowu met private collectors. “People that can support creativity do,” Olowu said.
“The art reflects that. Both art that has found its way here over the last century and art that continues to find its way here,” he added.
That art is the focus of “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Olowu curated more than 300 works from Chicago museums, galleries, foundations and collectors.
The artists featured in the show are not necessarily from Chicago or even American. But, the exhibit’s first gallery highlights local talent either born here or working here now — including architect and artist Amanda Williams. Her series Color(ed) Theory Suite. 2014-2016, captures empty houses in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood in photographs painted by the artist in bright colors. The exhibit also showcases works by the renowned contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, the performance artist Nick Cave and Jae Jarrell, a fashion designer and member of the 1960s art collective AfriCobra.
During the two years from concept to the exhibit’s opening, the MCA encouraged Olowu to have realistic expectations about works that would likely be available for loan. But, according to Olowu, the Chicago art world stepped up. Case in point: Church Lady, a limestone sculpture from the 1930s by William Edmondson, the son of slaves in Tennessee and self-taught artist who carved from stone in the early-to-mid 20th century. “Probably you see a work by him once every 25, 30 years,” Olowu said. “That [piece] was at the Art Institute and they lent it.”
Olowu’s decision not to separate gallery spaces with walls, he said, is meant to communicate that schools of art, mediums and an artist’s level of fame were not the organizing principle. Instead, each room has a theme. For example, Look At Me includes portraits such as Jordan Casteel’s Jared. In it, a young man, wearing torn jeans and sneakers, sits on a skateboard and peers back intently at the viewer.
Although Olowu doesn’t call himself an “artist” — as he says, “I’m working as a fashion designer and a curator” — visitors can see Olowu’s masterful prints, dramatic colors and structured silhouettes in the exhibit’s final gallery, where mannequins on a stage model his designs from the past 15 years. Olowu said the selection of garments reflects how Chicago has embraced his work. “These could be the women that have worn my things. A lot of these things are in Chicago in their wardrobes,” Olowu said.
When asked how he sees Chicago and its people, Olowu answered, “Curious.” He added, “And that they’re curious for the right reasons. They will try something not because it’s written that they should try it. They will try something if they can see, smell it or taste it. They really want to experience it.”
"Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago" is open through May 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Avenue.