Fashion Designer Duro Olowu on Curation and Creation

Self portrait (kneeling, naked, with mask), 1928Claude Cahun, Courtesy of the Jersey Heritage Collections

As his eclectic new exhibition opens at London's Camden Arts Centre, we speak to the Nigerian designer about the power of intuition and his myriad references

“I find it hard to sit for hours sketching,” confides Duro Olowu about the bold polkadot-and-stripe print in his idiosyncratically colourful S/S16 collection, a pattern he designed while doodling on the telephone. “I do a lot of quick drawings and throw most them away – my wife goes and retrieves them secretly!” An integral part of his design practice, this beauty in instinctual and spontaneous artistry – “the balancing of feeling and intention… when the process of doodling becomes something more” – is the subject of Making & Unmaking, a new exhibition curated by Olowu, running as part of Camden Arts Centre’s artist-selected exhibition series. 

“I feel like the visitor who is left alone in a museum at night,” Olowu gleefully explains of his curation of over 60 established and emerging international artists, from kaleidoscopic textile sculptures by Sheila Hicks to new commissions by Lisa Brice, and Anni Albers tapestries to unseen paintings by Chris Ofili. The third exhibition he has curated (2012’s Material was followed by More Material in 2014, both shown at Salon 94’s gallery spaces in New York), Olowu’s multidisciplinary assemblage of the classic and the contemporary, reflects his own patchwork like approach to design: vintage Bianchini-Férier brocade, Linton Tweed and traditional African prints found in the home of his mother have all featured in Olowu’s creations. “My Nigerian-Jamaican heritage tells me when in doubt just to add more!” he enthuses. Ahead of the opening of Making & Unmaking, we sat down with Olowu to discuss masculinity, female expression and his emotive connection to the artists featured in the exhibition…

On the symbolic self-portraits of Claude Cahun…
“She was a fantastic artist and surrealist in the 1920s and 30s, a lesbian and also very anti-establishment, who came from a very good family but really was not given the platform or credit she deserved. I think the mattress in the photograph is an indication of the repression she felt women were under at the time.”

On the portrayal of masculinity in Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou’s Musclemen Series…
“These musclemen live in a tough part of town; they lift weights in a mechanics shop using car parts. Now there is an element of sexuality there but I think it’s nice that there is a different vision of a well-built black man that doesn’t just look like a sexual object, or some kind of caricature. By using flora and fabric, Agbodjelou has constructed the whole thing in the same way Old Masters would have used fabric or curtains as an emblem of status. But this seems more about access to real identity.”


On the textural splendour of Lisa Brice…
"She has that incredible touch that a lot of really good women painters have. I read once that Richard Diebenkorn said he never attacked the canvas, but I think that really great female artists have that element. Maybe it’s because of the inequalities in society, and because women’s choices have always much more restricted. They are doing what they love, and there is a really strong awareness of that in their line or their paint."

On Alice Neel’s figurative finesse…
"We should all bow to Alice Neel! I love that she’s stuck to the figurative in all of her paintings, from families to hipsters to the guy uptown, and uses fabric and details in their clothing to subconsciously create this sort of background story about that person. You don’t know anything about him or her but you can draw your own conclusions based on the way they are dressed."

On his creative dialogue with Glenn Ligon…
"I was asked to do this incredible talk with Ligon at the Tate Modern last year, and I spoke to him about things he is interested in that nobody knows about, like West African and American textiles, because I saw a symbiosis between them and his work. Ligon was actually working on a commission for the exhibition, but it’s still in the process of being made. He thought it wasn’t at the point where he could make it work, even though he had such passion for the piece. It’s in the process of making and unmaking, which is exactly what the exhibition is talking about."

Duro Olowu: Making & Unmaking runs at Camden Arts Centre, London from June 19 until September 18, 2016.

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