Duro Olowu investigates the tapestry of art and life in his first major curatorial exhibition, Making & Unmaking at Camden Arts Centre

Duro Olowu’s love of textiles is at the heart of everything he does, feeding not only into his decadent womenswear collections but his curatorial eye for visual arts. As an instinctive collector of beautiful objects, and having displayed his global treasures in his own London store for years, he now presents his first major exhibition Making & Unmaking. Camden Arts Centre’s on-going artist-selected exhibition series aims to offer an insight into the inspirations and obsessions of each show’s author. In Olowu’s case, the hugely varied selection of works from over 70 artists are sewn together as much by his admiration for the process and ritual of making as by the vision and end result. 

“Duro Olowu’s talk with Glenn Ligon at Tate Modern early last year was inspirational; their shared passion for textiles connected a richly pictorial conversation about pattern, repetition, politics and process,” recalls Camden Arts Centre’s director Jenni Lomax. “This take on art and making, formed from a unique understanding of the relationship of fabric to the body, underpins the choices Olowu has made in shaping this exhibition.” 

The show itself was a year in the making and an organic process of selection spanning multiple mediums and eras. “The more I looked at a work that I was considering for the show, the more the intricacy and the beauty of an artist discovering and realising what they are capable of on an intuitive level, came through,” says Olowu. “I am attracted to specific pieces that take the artist in a direction outside what is regarded as their signature style, things that even they may have overlooked or disregarded. There is an immediacy in many of these examples in which the hand of the artist is felt."

"The more I looked at a work that I was considering for the show, the more the intricacy and the beauty of an artist discovering and realising what they are capable of on an intuitive level, came through"

A new commission from painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (a casual conversation with whom inspired the title of the show) joins photography by Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, Hamidou Maiga and Nobukho Nqaba, sculpture from Yinka Shonibare MBE, Eric Mack and Wangechi Mutu, collage by Lorna Simpson and Yoruba cloths from Olowu’s family archive. While separately addressing various themes around gender, sexuality, innocence, the body and power, the common thread that binds them together is the visceral emotions and tender touch that went into creating each piece.

During the talk with his wife, The Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden, at the opening of the exhibition last week – and in between knowing jokes about his “hoarding” tendencies – Olowu harked back to his early interest in style. “Growing up in Nigeria I was surrounded by ‘high cloth’ and was curious about the idea of something flat coming to life. And later I was inspired by designers such as Madeleine Vionnet and Yves Saint Laurent... My designs are about creating international style through a deep appreciation for textiles.” Since his very first capsule collection of empire line, bubu-like dresses for SS04, his freestyle, colourful and richly textured designs have won fans among confident nomads around the world.

One of the works that stands out most vividly to me in the exhibition, and its accompanying Making & Unmaking book, is Lisa Brice’s untitled painting of five female protagonists in various states of undress. Their inky, sensual forms are engaged in acts of looking and being looked upon – they are as engrossing on canvas as the depicted indigo cloths wrapped loosely around them. The large number of female artists in the show is in part “a quest to capture an understanding of art that is delicate but forceful,” Olowu said. Much the same could be said of one of his own divine dresses.

Making & Unmaking is on view at the Camden Arts Centre in London until 18 September 2016