Making & Unmaking / curated by Duro Olowu @ Camden Arts Centre, June 19 – September 18, 2016.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

To keep an increasingly sophisticated gallery audience engaged, large public galleries necessarily participate in a type of competitive curating.  In order to maintain visibility, it is critical for these institutions to put together programmes of high quality exhibitions. Many commercial galleries and smaller public spaces on the other hand will quite often cobble together group exhibitions on the flimsiest of premises. The results can be dispiriting, and it can seem like an exception to see a well researched group show in many spaces of this size. However, to call ‘Making and Unmaking’, curated by fashion designer Duro Olowu, simply a group show would be to undersell it. In the relative intimacy of the Camden Arts Centre, this assembly of work by over sixty artists has the feel of something epic.

Partly because of the amount of work on display, I found myself going back to this show more than a couple of times. The volume of work in the show, and more importantly the quality of so much of it, made it impossible to appreciate fully in a single visit. The selections that have been made and the expertly paced installation achieve precisely what they are meant to; they encourage the viewer to move back and forth between what seem to be superficially different works, in an attempt to spot possible connections and extract a thread of meaning from the whole. The subtle  connections and comparisons between the artworks multiply exponentially as we walk around the show; a testament to the curatorial skill behind this project. Without being intrusive, curator Duro Olowu emerges as a generous and confident presence behind the exhibition. It is unsurprising to find out that Olowu is a collector of objects, perhaps even a hoarder, and something of his collectors instinct comes across in the work he has assembled for this exhibition. It resonates with the thoughtfulness of the arrangements and the time that evidently went into their selection and acquisition.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

Despite being a themed exhibition, the concept behind the show is not self-evident. It is even fair to say that what binds these works together is not so much a clear narrative or an overarching concept, but more the very personal connection a great collector-practitioner develops with the paraphernalia associated with their field of activity. In short, it is a labour of love, from which a kind of intuitive logic emerges, which becomes the ‘concept’. The paraphernalia in Olowu’s case is fabric, whether patterned or plain, depicted in paintings or upholstered onto modernist sculpture, as a backdrop in a photograph or suspended from a rail like a theatre curtain. The inclusion of so much painting in this show however can initially throw us off course when we are trying to grab hold of the concept. We are used to analysing painting, whether abstract or otherwise, to such a degree that it can threaten to exhaust all available philosophical tools.  Fabric and clothing however are so intrinsic to everyday needs that their significance as artefacts loaded with meaning beyond the utilitarian, as products which are the result of a sophisticated evolution tied to every aspect of human culture, can be overlooked.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

The paintings in the show are either abstract with a heavy reliance on pattern (see Stanley Whitney’s modestly sized contribution), or representational with figures wearing patterned clothing (see Lynette Yiadom-Boakyes’ muted portraits or Alice Neel’s ‘Floral Shirt’). They are occasionally hung in such close proximity to garments or jewellery as to suggest a direct connection. And if the central element in this show is pattern, then it does certainly form a conceptual bridge between the individual works in this disparate collection. For example, the delightfully slow burning and subtle painting by Andreas Eriksson ‘Marble dust’ seems to speak directly to the large scale painterly fabric work of Brent Wadden on an adjacent wall.

Whilst this is not strictly speaking a survey show, if we were to imagine a point of origin from which much of the more contemporary work could be said to have taken its cue, it would be the 19th century Yoruba cloth which Olowu has included. There are obvious aesthetic comparisons that can be made between the very fresh geometric patterns of the Yoruba textiles and those of Bauhaus-trained Anni Albers.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

No matter how expert the installation, there is something of death which attends any museum-style display of clothing. Clothes come to life when they are used and worn instead of empty and pinned to a wall. The photographs of Malick Sidibé, Hamidou Maiga and Leonce Raphael Agbodgelou document the effortless elegance of much African dress as it is worn. Agbodgelou’s ‘Muscleman’ series is a vibrant clash of live masculinity juxtaposed against a super-saturated background of florid patterns. Malick Sidibé’s Vues De Dos, a series of black and white photographs of women seen from behind, are delicate reworkings of a genre of painting that stretches back to Titian, and perhaps much further.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

It’s a good time to see African photography in London, with MADE YOU LOOK, Dandyism and Black Masculinity at The Photographers’ Gallery from July 15th MADE YOU LOOK Dandyism and Black Masculinity and Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou – Borderlands at Jack Bell Gallery from July 8th www.jackbellgallery.com. For a rich and thoughtful exhibition experience make your way to Making and Unmaking, curated by Duro Olowu, at the Camden Arts Centre until September 18th www.camdenartscentre..org.

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Installation view of Making & Unmaking: An exhibition curated by Duro Olowu at Camden Arts Centre, 2016. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre. Photo: Mark Blower.

Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in London

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