Artist and designer Virgil Abloh pictured at the press preview of his debut exhibit, "Figures of Speech," at Museum of Contemporary Art | Photo by Morgan Elise Johnson [The TRiiBE}

“Figures of Speech” is the newest exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the first ever devoted to the work of artist, designer and longtime Kanye West collaborator Virgil Abloh. On Friday, MCA invited journalists to a special preview of the exhibit. On first look, “Figures of Speech” is an ode to streetwear fans who have been following Abloh’s rise from printing “Pyrex 23” and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio pieces on store-bought shirts to designing high-end looks for the runway under his Off-White brand.

But underneath the surface, there appears to be a hint of struggle in Abloh’s desire to critique fashion and consumer culture, both being largely white-dominated arenas, while actively participating in those industries himself.

“Black Gaze,” one of the more socially-driven installations within Abloh’s exhibit, brings this struggle to life. In this section of the exhibit, Abloh displays some of his collaborations with Louis Vuitton which tackles the exclusion and commodification of Black art and fashion in white advertising spaces. In one series of photos, where a Black boy poses with colorful Louis Vuitton bags, Abloh seeks to alter the white-centric approach to marketing that he studied growing up as an admirer and consumer of major fashion brands. The series accompanied Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2019 collection, “Dark Side of the Rainbow.”

“It was my education,” Abloh said about effects of consumerism on his work. “It’ll feed the next chapter of [my] work.”

Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago June 10 – September 22, 2019 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

The exhibit is designed by Samir Bantal, a director of AMO, which is a research studio of the OMA architecture firm. Each space within the exhibit touches on different aspects of Abloh’s career: “Early Work,” “Fashion,” “Music,” Intermezzo,” “Black Gaze,” “Design” and “The End.” As a whole, the exhibit creates something akin to a walking resume for those who study Abloh’s work and for those new to his designs.

“Early Work” and “Fashion” depict the Rockford, Ill. native’s journey from a streetwear artist to becoming Louis Vuitton’s first Black creative director and one of few Black artists to helm a major fashion house. The promotional video from the launch of Pyrex Vision is the very first image you see upon entering the exhibit. Immediately after, the floor opens up into a large white room overlooked by a massive, blacked-out billboard with graffiti on the back. The space offers an industrial vibe meant to evoke the spirit of downtown Chicago.

Placed around the room, in chronological order, are several of the collections and looks Abloh has designed since the 2013 launch of his brand, Off-White. They include a fall line inspired by a “tongue-in-cheek” take on European resort wear, as well as an unreleased dress designed for Beyoncé that was intended for her 2018 Vogue cover.

Meanwhile, the “Music” section highlights both Abloh’s work with West and his time as a DJ. A blow-up sculpture of West’s 2013 album, Yeezus, takes center stage. It’s backdropped by a wall of street team-style posters of rapper Chief Keef in a Supreme T-shirt and gold chains. There’s also the cover for 2011’s Watch the Throne, the celebrated collaboration between West and his rapper mentor-friend Jay Z. Abloh earned a Grammy nomination for the gilded work.

Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago June 10 – September 22, 2019 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Out of all of the installations, the “Black Gaze” room stands out the most. Abloh said that this installation is the first time he is addressing the racial themes in his work. More specifically, Abloh likened his approach to fashion and art to the “Trojan Horse.” It’s designed to force traditional white spaces to grapple with race.

That’s why the first image you see upon entering “Black Gaze” is a neon sign with the words, “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place,” a quote from the 1990 film Pretty Woman. Additionally, “Black Gaze” features an original blacked-out painting of the Cotton brand’s symbol contextualized against another image of an obscured Black woman carrying a bag of cotton.

None of Abloh’s images or descriptions in “Black Gaze” directly address race but, for him, that’s the point.

“The very first work that you see in the exhibit was about race but it wasn’t at the forefront,” Abloh said. “It was right at the level that allowed the work to speak for itself.”

Though Abloh sees the fight for a more inclusive fashion industry as the nucleus of his work, his critics aren’t so sure. In May, he received backlash for the apparent lack of diversity in his Off-White staff. He responded to the criticism, highlighting the work he’s done to provide an inclusive platform for other artists in the industry.

“Figures of Speech” will be open to the public from June 10 through September 22.

Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago June 10 – September 22, 2019 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.