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Keeping it two Virgils: ‘Figures of Speech’ is Beauty and the Hypebeast

Virgil Abloh brings “Figures of Speech” to the ICA. When you peel back the hype, you see the celebration of Blackness and community.

ICA Teens in Virgil Abloh (from left) Andre, Evan, Zaryah, Fei-Fei, Hibi, and Mintou.
ICA Teens in Virgil Abloh (from left) Andre, Evan, Zaryah, Fei-Fei, Hibi, and Mintou.OJ Slaughter

Who assigns your worth?

In America, capitalism is the culture. Everything has a price. It started with the robbing and killing and selling of people. Native American and Black people. We live in a country where there is a sliding scale of societal value in all things. Even creativity.

Luxury. Fine arts. High fashion.

Gatekeepers — primarily white — dictate what constitutes beauty, elegance, and celebration. Racism is so threaded in American culture, how can one sew a life without its construct?

“You can’t remove where we came from to understand where we’re at,” Virgil Abloh said in an intimate discussion at the Institute of Contemporary Art on his “Figures of Speech” exhibit, opening Saturday. “Race is one of these things that is in the air, but the bit of magic around my work is it is in the DNA, it’s not on the surface.”

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To pass it by, his work reads as ultra trendy, and a fast kinda food. This is a man who can — love it or hate it — indeed slap the name of an object on said object and sell it for hundreds of dollars. Is that ownership of worth, art, or is that capitalism and hustle of hype? Perhaps all.

He’s not without vision. As you spend time with his art, be it fashion, his furniture, or sculpture, you think about the privilege of beauty and luxury and who defines it. Abloh’s genius and grind are there in his lux brand, Off-White, in DJing, there in the ICA, in the Nike collabs, and the house of Louis Vuitton, too, where he’s the artistic director for menswear. It’s in what drove him there.

It’s also the foundation of his exhibition at the ICA. The show, is a lot like a catalog of career highlights, featuring a joke of the criticism his first brand —Pyrex — received, paying homage to the iconic YEEZUS album cover he designed, the Nike collection, Louis Vuitton campaigns he conceptualized, some of his IKEA creations. But it’s more than that to consider.

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The Lauryn Hill playing over a stereo, the DJ flyers, the skateboard ramp. Not just the Louis Vuitton duffle, but the way it’s secured to the platform. Who he features in his fashion films: Saul Williams, yasiin bey, Kai-Isaiah Jamal. “Fashion Wall” is a 60-foot photo collage demanding your attention, featuring everyday African fashion on Black people in the streets of Accra, Ghana as the landscape of photo cut-outs of models, wearing Abloh fashions — his wearing shades of white. It is a direct line to not only his Ghanaian roots, but Africa and the originators of it all.

As a kid, he felt like success was a mountain he was unsure how to climb since those at the top so rarely reflect you. Now, he charts paths for others. He reminds them the mountain is made of them, too.

A blue foam ladder, “AS IMPOSSIBLE” in the exhibit feels both like the blues of the broken-hearted and an invitation to stand it up and climb. As I am possible, you are, too.

The purpose of this show, Abloh believes, is to make the inside of these elite institutions start to match the outside, the communities in which they reside. His work is not meant to speak the language of the critics. It’s for the culture, specifically the young and otherized.

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“My work is not made to sit in the establishment,” he said. “It’s made for the 14-year-old kid to see someone met him halfway.”

Consider a teenage Dawoud Bey walking into the polarizing “Harlem on My Mind” at the Met and seeing the work of James Van Der Zee on display, beautiful portraits of Black folk. That moment inspired him to see us through a lens of his own and make pictures for us, art of us, sans the white gaze.

‘“My work is not made to sit in the establishment,” Abloh said. “It’s made for the 14-year-old kid to see someone met him halfway.”’

In “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” Toni Morrison asked, “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free?”

This does not just apply to Black writers, it applies to Black imaginations, period. Even when race is not the subject of our creativity, somehow it is always part of it. Someone, somewhere, will make it so. Because white supremacy never died and slavery, colonization, and its lasting effects are truths America would rather bury. Ghosts that haunt us until we live our truth.

Mintou Barry, on her own terms.
Mintou Barry, on her own terms.OJ Slaughter

Enter “Breaking Cycles,” an extension of Abloh’s show by Boston-based photographer OJ Slaughter and ICA Teens, the council of teens amplifying the intersection of art and social justice at the museum.

A series of portraits of the teens featuring Abloh’s fashions, much of it sold in his ICA pop-up shop, “Church & State,” it is more about the teens and their expression of self than his clothes. And that’s the point for him and them.

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They were able to cut, tear, paint, and style thousands of dollars of Abloh’s designs to their liking, to their aesthetic, to their definition of self-expression. Luxury of self.

Slaughter, known for making sure their subjects have agency in how they are imaged and ensuring marginalized narratives are told and protected by marginalized storytellers, didn’t just make stunning portraits. They made visual stories. They collaborated with the teens in the making of the photographs. What makes you feel loved, empowered, feel like yourself? These are the kind of questions they asked as they made these images.

Mintou Barry, with her braid wrapped around her neck like jewels and gems lining her eyes, dons an Abloh hat in her portrait that reads: Artwork Missing. And yet, the art is right there: her, framed in gold. This is what Abloh was getting at all along.

“It means a lot to me being a young Black woman to see myself on the walls of the museum,” said the incoming Simmons freshmen and recent Boston Prep grad. “OJ gave us a lot of freedom. I’m grateful. We got to tell our own stories, how we wanted to see and be seen, so even though America might have one view of us, we get to tell our truth.”

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Roselle "Hibi" Carrillo disrupting erasure.
Roselle "Hibi" Carrillo disrupting erasure.OJ Slaughter

For Roselle “Hibi” Carrillo, a 2021 graduate of Lynn Classical High School, the portraits are reflections of their lineage and culture, too.

“I am thinking about my community in the arts space and my people in the Philippines. My people are very much unrepresented ... I think, for me, being involved in all these spaces is a big step for everyone,” said Carillo, a soon-to-be freshman of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.

“You see a brown person being who they are on a wall? I think it inspired me to work harder on not hiding myself and becoming the person I am now and expanding my work for the future.”

This is Slaughter’s museum debut, one reflective of their mission and Abloh’s, too: making space as you take space and own your narrative.

“Growing up, I never saw people who look like me in museums,” Slaughter said. “Being able to give that gift to someone is a big deal. What Virgil taught me is valuable. My art doesn’t have to be anything more than it already is. I do this because I am documenting the history of right now, our future past, and to be able to bring it in a museum brings me so much joy. It’s not just my art on the wall. It’s art of my community on the wall.”

We are worthy. We are luxury. And these are our stories to tell, to make mountains of melanated beauty.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.