At a time when diversity and gender equality are a continuous struggle in the architecture field, having a woman of color at the top of North America’s largest architecture and design exhibition makes a powerful impact. Born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in London, Chicago-based Yesomi Umolu comes from a diverse background—both culturally and professionally. Having built a strong resume that spans contemporary art, architecture and urbanism across the United States and Europe, the exhibitions curator at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, was recently named artistic director of the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB). Informed by her recent projects—including the Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado: Divine Violence (2017), Kapwani Kiwanga: The sum and its parts (2017) and So-called Utopias (2015) exhibitions at the Logan Center Gallery—Umolu has long explored the politics of the built environment. But her work extends in different media: a writer and critic, she is also a visiting lecturer and speaker, as well as a 2016 recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts curatorial fellowship. She’s also a child of the diaspora. Between innovation and architectural history, the Biennial, in its third edition in 2019, has to convey a global story that’s also linked to Chicago and its history, especially considering the city’s architectural significance. And, willing to push into less Eurocentric spaces, Umolu is here to do just that.
Could you talk about how you’re planning to develop the exhibition from a curator’s perspective? What is the guiding idea for this Biennial?
At the moment, I am working on putting together a curatorial team that will work with me on developing ideas for the Biennial. I look forward to collaborating with individuals who have in-depth knowledge of the field of architecture as well as those who have experience working with large-scale exhibitions. Given the civic nature of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, I am excited to work with those who share my passion for engaging with the city as a whole and for reaching broad publics.
Your curatorial work has strong architectural elements. In what ways has your background in architectural design and curatorial studies, and especially your experience in global contemporary art and spatial practices, prepared you and how will it inform your role at the upcoming Chicago Architecture Biennial?
Given my early training in architectural design, I come to curatorial practice with a strong interest in exploring the broader ramifications of the built environment. I am excited to use the Biennial as a platform to explore shifting spatial conditions at the local, regional and international level.
Crafting your creative vision, what parameters do you take into consideration as you move from theory to practice? Where do you look for inspiration?
As with any curatorial project, there are practical considerations to take into account when realizing an exhibition. In terms of the Biennial, I think questions of scale and interpretation are very important ones when we think about the types of experiences we want to foster within the Chicago Cultural Center and beyond. It is also important that we consider how the ideas presented can resonate with a range of audiences—from experts in the field to architecture enthusiasts and first-time visitors. I find inspiration primarily in my interaction with practitioners. I feel there is a strong imperative for the Biennial to reflect ideas that are pertinent to architects, artists and designers working today as well as reflect the concerns and perspectives of everyday citizens whose lives are vastly shaped by the built environment.
What kinds of boundaries do you feel you’re pushing curating the Biennial at this moment in time? What challenges do you expect to face?
I feel incredibly optimistic about curating the Biennial at this moment in time. My work has always approached an evolving set of urgent questions that are important to specific sites and locales. As the overarching ideas for the Biennial develop, I am keen that these ideas are informed by conversations with folks in and outside the city, and that the Biennial reflects urgencies across different spaces, geographies and communities.
In what ways are you hoping to engage the city of Chicago—one of the most diverse cities in the country—and its people, as well as visitors traveling from across the United States and the world, in the global conversation on architecture and design? What are you hoping the viewers will take away from this exhibition?
I hope this edition of the Biennial continues the strong spirit of openness and experimentation that has marked the Chicago Architecture Biennial to date. It is extremely exciting that different publics in the city and elsewhere are invested in the Biennial as a platform that reflects, informs and posits new thinking about architecture, urbanism and spatial practice.
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