File Note 105: Making and Unmaking - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Jenni Lomax



Introduction Duro Olowu in conversation with Glenn Ligon Images References Quote Biography Credits


Designer Duro Olowu and artist Glenn Ligon share a passion for textiles; a connection revealed in their richly pictorial discussion about pattern, repetition, politics and process that took place at Tate Modern, London in 2015. It was clear from their conversation that Olowu had a very particular take on art and making; his perspective formed from a unique understanding of the relationship of fabric to the body — and to society. The exhibition Making & Unmaking, curated by Olowu, grew out of the fertile ground covered by this dialogue he had with Ligon.

While beautiful antique Yoruba and Kuba textiles have a strong presence in Making & Unmaking, it is not an exhibition of textile art. What has underpinned Olowu’s approach to selecting works — which includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, designs, jewel-lery and ceramics — is a feeling for the rhythmic process of seeing, thinking and making. It is important for him too that evidence of the artists’ hand is a palpable presence in all the pieces he has chosen.

He sees that the rhythm that the artists work to echoes the motion of weaving; the title Making & Unmaking itself evokes Homer’s crafty Penelope; undoing at night what she has woven in the day to ensure she achieves her desire. But Olowu admits that the title was stolen from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, one of the artists in the exhibition who described her way of playing with colour to gain something she never thought possible as a ‘sort of making and unmaking of the work even before the public has seen it’.

The following conversation with Glenn Ligon throws more light on the way that Duro Olowu’s eyes, memory and mind have worked to bring an exhibition full of treasures into being.

Duro Olowu in conversation with Glenn Ligon

Duro Olowu A lot of the works in Making & Unmaking already have strong political undercurrents and a whole confluence of themes — addressing gender, race, beauty, sexuality and the body. The artists already know this is what their work is about, but they go through tactile and intellectual processes during the making of these charged works. It has to do with the hands or mind and the way they work. I found it quite incredible that the more I looked at a work, the more the intricacy and beauty of discovering what the artist is capable of while making it came through to me… in Making & Unmaking, I’m looking at the training that is done by the artist within their own space — both mental and physical. I really don’t see myself as a curator — well, I didn’t! To be honest, my thought process is very different than for a traditional curator: I can let the themes go left; let them go right; they go up; they go down; sometimes they disappear; other themes are brought in; and there are no rules. That is probably different to what a curator within a museum can do. I’m not trying to say that my approach is better or more interesting — the fact is that I do feel a sense of freedom when I’m working in this manner. There are no constraints on what I can tackle — genres, era, dates — and, even more importantly, I can surprise myself by including works that I would not have considered at the start of the process.

Glenn Ligon Let’s talk a bit about how this impulse to curate came about. You have a thriving career as a designer, and you’ve taken on a lot to do this exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. What is that impulse about?

DO To be honest, it came from growing up in spaces where very different things were put together. In my world, in all my spaces, I put things that are very different together: ceramics, art, textures, fabrics, photographs, books, jewellery. They are things that I feel have a sort of grounded integrity coupled with amazing aesthetic beauty. I always thought that it was normal and everybody could do it. If you’re being creative, you have to truly see the things around you in a different way.

GL Glancing at the checklist there are a number of artists that I know but the things you have included in the show by those artists is work that I have never seen before. For example, I know Dorothea Tanning as a painter but I don’t know the much about her fabric works.

DO I am always looking at Dorothea Tanning fabric sculptures. I love the paintings, but there’s something quite profound and twisted about this type of her work. Getting to know artists, I have learned that they have deep interest in clothing and fabric. They are intrigued by how something that starts out flat can become a completely different form and role.

GL It turns into something.

DO Exactly — which they don’t feel they can achieve unless they make a sculpture.

GL Let’s talk about the medium of photography for a moment and its role in Making & Unmaking.

DO The work of photographers such as Claude Cahun, Irving Penn and Neil Kenlock were crucial to the formation of the exhibition. Cahun worked in different media as an artist but she was best known for her photography. She had a life that was colourful, but also very true to what she believed in and conveyed this all in her work — issues of sexuality and identity — with a surrealist tinge. Neil Kenlock captured the British Afro-Caribbean community in London in the 1960s and 1970s. He saw what he was doing as creative, but, perhaps, he didn’t necessarily see himself as an artist; it was a job, like being a jewellery-maker. But he photographed powerful reminders of issues surrounding identity, often in gloriously representational domestic settings that are very familiar to me due to my part-Jamaican heritage. Meanwhile, Irving Penn’s work, to me, is a lesson in the personal ritual of someone seeking perfection in composition and execution; he always wanted to get everything just right and really worked at it.

GL …you think so much like an artist in terms of the research you do on design, the collaborations with various craftsmen you are involved in, the sense of collage that informs your work. Artists are often in dialogue with people who they respect, even if those people are not artists.

DO That is probably true. I am thrilled to be part of this type of dialogue, which wasn’t obvious to me in the beginning. The truth is that some of the most inspiring shows that I’ve seen have been ones that deal with this kind of discussion, or this dialogue between art and fashion; art and textiles; art and music; art and the environment… With me, the aim of showing the work of artists in this way is to let the viewer see each piece for what it is and respect it as a thing of beauty. Anni Albers, whose work I found out about many years ago, is someone I’ve really come to admire because I feel the challenge for women artists is very different. Josef Albers was a fantastic artist but very professorial: his paintings were very geometric and mathematical. Whereas Anni’s work — whether it’s the weaving, the little paintings and drawings, the jewellery or the tapestries — shows a need to make something and to form a kind of relationship with your body that allows you to make it… In her case, it was a very personal and quiet way of working, using simple materials to create such special and moving pieces.

GL One of the aspects that’s quite striking in the show is there are a number of ways that the body is represented. You could look at Malick Sidibé’s representations of women in the Vue de dos photography series (2002–04) or you could look at the ways painters like Chris Ofili and Lisa Brice are representing the body in patterns, in fabric. Can you talk about the different ways these various artists use painting, photography and so on to represent the body, but also talk about the ways in which textiles and fabrics appear in those different modes of working?

DO Textile and pattern in works by Ofili and Brice don’t appear like those in paintings by Van Dyck and the Old Masters. The latter created painted characters in stately postures with textiles and in clothes that enhanced the status of the sitter. In Making & Unmaking, I wanted to highlight how contemporary artists represent textile and pattern in their work. To me, selecting and wearing clothes in real life is the most powerful and emotionally truthful expression of personal identity. Looking at some of the portraits in the show, what strikes me is that not every aspect is painted or detailed with pattern, but the right bits are — that is a skill. Alice Neel is a master of this. In Richard with Dog (1954), the way she painted the clothing of her subjects conveyed much more than the era, rather, one feels the sexual and political undercurrent, which adds to the beauty and skill of its execution. Meredith Frampton, a great painter in the 1920s, is someone who I only discovered through research for the show. His portraits depicted quintessential English women, usually doing things everybody at that time expected: playing the violin, looking beautiful yet forlorn. However, in a work like Winifred Radford (1921), there’s something else going on in the background that makes you think, ‘something isn’t right’. The rich and stark portrayal of her body and the clothes — even without pattern — says that the subject is someone who carries the burdens of her gender, sexuality and era.

GL I appreciate the historical range of the show as well as the variety of objects in it. You have included older or under-known work you feel can be in dialogue with contemporary works. It is inspiring to me to see these various things put together.

DO With my work, I often combine and juxtapose my own fabric prints with rare vintage ones from my private collection. I’ve always felt that, by including these outstanding examples of quality antique fabrics in a piece of mine, what I make needs to be in harmony with the technical and aesthetic beauty of what I’m using from the past. I find that when artists are also working with materials that they’re not used to, they try and achieve the same thing they have in their other work. This process of discovery and experimentation is very empowering and that is what Making & Unmaking is ultimately about.


King Sunny Adé And His African Beats, Synchro System (1983)

Aswad, Warrior Charge (1980)

Jorge Ben, Xica da Silva (1976)

Neneh Cherry, Manchild (1989)

Claude Debussy, La Mer (1903–05)

Joao Gilberto, Aguas de Marco (1973)

Billie Holiday, You Go to My Head (1938)

Gregory Isaacs, Night Nurse (1982)

Grace Jones, The Apple Stretching (1982)

Fela Kuti, Kalakuta Show (1976)

Miriam Makeba, Khawuleza (1966)

Prince Nico Mbarga, Aki Special (1987)

Puccini, Tosca (1900)

Nina Simone, See Line Woman (1965)

Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène (dir.), 1966

Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger (dir.), 1954

Plein Soleil, Rene Clement (dir.), 1960

Rocco and His Brothers, Luchino Visconti (dir.), 1961

The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell (dir.), 1972

The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (dir.), 1948

Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease (1960)

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Wole Soyinka, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: a memoir 1946–65 (1989)

William Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

“Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done: the dictation of the materials.” Anni Albers


Duro Olowu (b.1965, Nigeria) lives and works in London. Since making a shift from law to fashion in 2004, Olowu has been designing womenswear collections in his signature assemblage aesthetic, drawing from a myriad of different inspirations. In 2005 he was named best new designer at the British Fashion Awards. Recently favouring photography and intimate presentations to runway shows, Olowu continues to show twice a year as part of London Fashion Week. He curated Material and More Material, both at Salon 94 Bowery, New York (2012 and 2014 respectively), the first of which coincided with his Autumn/Winter presentation at New York Fashion Week that year. In 2015 he was in conversation with the artist Glenn Ligon at Tate Modern as part of their American artist Lecture Series in partnership with Art in Embassies and US Embassy London. 


Glenn Ligon is an artist based in New York.

Supported by Cockayne  —  Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation, Charlotte and Alan Artus, LUMA Foundation, Laurie Fitch, Yana and Stephen Peel, Mala Gaonkar and Oliver Haarmann, Thomas Dane and Thomas Dane Gallery, Guy and Alexandra Halamish, Victoria Miro, Salon 94, Nicola and Julian Blake, Sara and Husain Tayeb-Khalifa, Alison Jacques Gallery, and other members of the Duro Olowu Exhibition Circle.