View of “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,” 2020, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

View of “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,” 2020, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Kendall McCaugherty.

“Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago”

This boldly maximalist group exhibition curated by Nigerian-born British fashion designer Duro Olowu was the first show at the museum organized by a noninstitutional curator. It included more than three hundred pieces by more than 250 artists (exceeding the number of works in the 2019 Venice Biennale), borrowed from more than sixty private and institutional Chicago-area collections. Installed salon style and organized into six loosely thematic sections, the show was broadly international in scope, with a focus on postwar and contemporary African and African-diasporic artists, most of them female and many with ties to Chicago.

The space was consumed by a floor-to-ceiling profusion of artworks, densely arranged on walls and mesh partitions and displayed upon painted plinths. The section titled “Look at Me” explored the vicissitudes of portraiture and included paintings by Jordan Casteel, Alice Neel, and Mickalene Thomas. “Toward Abstraction” contained sculptures, arranged chromatically, monochromatically, or by pattern, and established connections between the likes of Jackie Ferrara, Martin Puryear, and Elias Sime. “Lost in Space” presented visionary allegiances between Forrest Bess, René Magritte, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and the Hairy Who, while “Power to the People” focused on the political impulse, largely captured in documentary photography by Barbara Crane, Jonas Dovydenas, and Seydou Keïta, along with text-driven pieces by Barbara Kruger, Faith Ringgold, and Cauleen Smith. The last gallery held a presentation of mannequins dressed in Olowu’s vibrant, pattern-driven women’s wear—an exuberant finale that synthesized the layered, textile-inflected aesthetic logic of the preceding galleries.

A consistent design motif of the exhibition was wall and pedestal colors derived from Amanda Williams’s series “Color(ed) Theory,” 2014–16. For this work, Williams painted houses on Chicago’s South Side slated for demolition in tones used for products, such as hair conditioner Ultra Sheen (turquoise), Crown Royal whiskey (purple), and Pink oil moisturizer (pink), marketed to Black consumers. As she describes it, “Racism is my city’s vivid hue.” The photos that document the project appeared in the first thematically unspecified gallery, its walls painted black, alongside works by Chicago-based artists Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Richard Hunt, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell of AfriCOBRA, and Rashid Johnson. This gallery and Williams’s series set one of the agendas of the exhibition as Olowu saw it: “bringing Chicago into the interiors of the museum.” Laced throughout the show was a story about the city as a generator of avant-gardism that has often looked toward Africa as a creative source, especially following the civil rights era. This Midwestern hub’s transnationalism—and penchant for nondominant “outsider” aesthetics and craft-based traditions—was elegantly reflected in Olowu’s own sensibility.

While a viewer could easily have consumed the exhibition as an experiential whole, attempting to view the collection piece by piece—with the artists’ identities, careers, cultures, and respective movements in mind, let alone how they rub up against one another and inform new readings—was an impossible task, given its overwhelming scale. Like the Wunderkammer, with its lyrical inclusivity, Olowu’s approach offered viewers at best a rapturous and liberating way to process the mysteries and pleasures of art while also defying the stranglehold of white-box presentations and traditional museology. Yet at its worst the display method mirrored the style of luxe domestic decor and retail store design (in fact, Olowu’s first curatorial endeavors were seen as extensions of his London boutique, which is organized similarly). Full of surface seductions “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago” masked with its immersive pleasure its myriad contradictions, many of which are mirrored by fashion itself: a global industry blinkered by its own excesses, situated somewhere between haute merch and popular necessity, expressive art and practical consumability. One also wondered about the longer-term viability of Olowu’s jet-set cosmopolitanism in a pandemic era. Perhaps it’s all possible, but it should be scaled down.