Duro Olowu: Seeing


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MCA curator Naomi Beckwith holding a copy of the book signed by all the artists included in the exhibition. Opening Night.

Duro Olowu has a flair for unlikely combinations. A single collection by the Nigerian-born designer might include flowing candy-striped silks, metallic floral brocades, crushed velvets in high-voltage hues, leopard rosettes, and intricate geometric jacquards. The effect of these kaleidoscopic contrasts is not carnivalesque but cosmopolitan—a savvy blend of craft traditions spanning several continents, Western couture, and the effortless cool of icons ranging from Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba to Françoise Gilot and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Olowu brings the same catholic eye to his curatorial practice, which recently found dazzling expression in “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Gathering hundreds of eclectic works from collections across the city, Olowu installed pieces by modernist heavyweights, international rising stars, and obscure talents alongside historical photographs and artisanal objects from Ghana, South Africa, and Gabon.

DURO OLOWU: SEEING is a companion to the exhibition, but it’s not exactly a catalogue. In lieu of sober documentation of the works on display, nearly all of the illustrations are full-page, full-bleed details. Paintings, fashion photos, and Olowu’s iPhone snapshots appear cropped and layered. One spread juxtaposes a picture of three striding schoolgirls—wearing white socks, leather sandals, and bright-blue uniforms—with a vintage photo of American highway traffic overlaid with Purple Hats, a painting by the Israeli artist Elad Lassry depicting a crowd of chic Black women in lilac capes and feather boas. Short essays by MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, fashion historian Valerie Steele, and writer and curator Ekow Eshun chart the development of Olowu’s distinctive eye, while curator Thelma Golden (to whom Olowu is married) interviews the designer. In keeping with Olowu’s maverick ethos, the book also includes a poem and two delightfully eerie works of fiction by the painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—pieces that consider the acquisitive nature of collecting with a wry, refreshing skepticism. The format might pique readers hoping for a straightforward record of the show, but Duro Olowu: Seeing gives us something more unusual. By losing ourselves in its visual rhythms, we can better understand Olowu’s singular aesthetic.


Art Director and Designer
Renata Graw
Crystal Zapata