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Chicago Architecture Biennial’s newest artistic director offers a fresh perspective

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Yesomi Umolu has a history of showcasing new voices

Chicago Architecture Biennial

Yesomi Umolu, a curator and former architect, was selected as the sole artistic director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial back in March which puts her in a unique position—both past programs were led by a pair of directors.

Umolu will undertake the massive citywide festival of architecture and design along with a curatorial team she is currently putting together. It’s early in the planning stages, but Umolu already has a sense of direction. Last year’s theme was Make New History and brought in more than half a million visitors to see groundbreaking projects from 140 architects and designers from 20 countries.

In preparing for the upcoming biennial, which will take place between September 19, 2019 and January 5, 2020, Umolu is focusing on building relationships. This is the part of her work that she enjoys most, she told Curbed Chicago during an interview at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park. Currently, she directs the program of international contemporary art at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center Gallery and will continue to do so while planning the biennial.

“It’s all about doing the best that I can to showcase an artist’s creative voice. When a project is successful for me, that’s when we’ve been able to do that. Building a good relationship with an artist and using my skills to deliver their voices to the world, that is my task,” Umolu said.

The curatorial team that she assembles will most likely involve people who can offer complimentary strengths. As a curator Umolu has a lot of expertise is executing strong visions and voices, so someone “embedded” in the architecture discipline would make a good counterpart, she said. A team that understands the inclusive purpose and expansive nature of the event is important too.

Umolu followed the path to become an architect, but after practicing she realized it wasn’t her calling. What clicked was her volunteer work developing youth arts programming at the Tate Modern Museum in London. The team she was on had a lot of freedom—they managed a budget and could do almost whatever they wanted at the museum. She volunteered with people from all different backgrounds on organizing various educational programs and learned about museum curation there.

“All of a sudden I realized that there was this thing called a curator and I really felt that’s what I could do,” said Umolu.

She entered the world of curating with a background in architecture and hadn’t studied museum practices or art history. That perspective was invaluable and influences how she approaches her work now.

“It was a benefit to my life as a curator, and its important to me, whatever exhibition I do, that it offers avenues and entry points for everyone,” she said.

The Chicago Architecture Biennial is anchored at the Chicago Cultural Center, which originally opened as the city’s first public library. Now the building is an important civic space with art exhibitions, performances and events which makes it the perfect anchor for the biennial.

“It’s exciting to be able to extend our tentacles out into the city and engage in different parts of Chicago that are strong in architectural heritage,” Umolu said. “One of the joys of this job is that it’s not an exhibition designated to one space.”

Chicago Cultural Center
Shutterstock

Biennials are unique, spanning entire cities and bringing together high-brow industry leaders and the general public for a conversation. In addition to the exhibitions and events, she hopes to leverage the program’s educational opportunities.

Umolu is familiar with the process—she’s worked on Manifesta 8, the European biennial and serves on the curatorial advisory board for the United States Pavillion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale.

Some might think it’s challenging to cater to such a broad audience, but Umolu sees it as an opportunity to showcase some of the most interesting architecture and design work through inclusive engagement.

“I think that’s the work that curator’s do. I see it less as a challenge, it’s just the task at hand.”

For a little under a decade, her work has focused on global contemporary art and how artists address spacial questions. She makes it a point to work with artists who haven’t had major recognition in the United States or Europe and elevate those voices. She’s particularly interested in artists located in Latin America, Mexico, Africa and South Asia. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of this reflected in her vision for the biennial’s third program.

As a “global citizen that has lived in places all over the world,” she said she hopes her experiences and interests will bring something different to the architecture and design discourse.

“In general, biennials should not be seen as singular occurrences. It has a life that spans years, if not decades, and is meant to map architectural production across a long time frame. I’m excited to add my own perspective. And whoever comes after me, they’ll build upon that or challenge what I might do as well,” Umolu said.