Line drawing of a traditionally dressed shopkeeper selling to a customer from his crowded store
Back to What's On

Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech"

Exhibition

This mid-career retrospective is the acclaimed American artist and designer Virgil Abloh's first museum exhibition in the Middle East. With more than 55 works, curated by Michael Darling in collaboration with Samir Bantal, "Figures of Speech" offers an in-depth look at Abloh's diverse pioneering media practice that ranges from visual arts to music, fashion, architecture and design.

Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" is sponsored by ExxonMobil, Qatar Airways, Astro Automotive Services, Mazaya Real Estate Development Company and Qatar-USA Year of Culture.

Virgil Abloh has made a career out of questioning assumptions and defying expectations. Born in 1980 and raised in the Chicago area, Abloh trained as an architect but found his calling as a fashion designer. Since then, he has continued to work across disciplines, collaborating with graphic and furniture designers, musicians and contemporary artists, as well as others in the fashion industry. In undertaking projects in new fields, he not only influences the conversations within them but also expands their traditional audiences, reaching millions through social media.

Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" offers an unprecedented survey of the artist’s creative work over nearly two decades, pulling back the curtain on his process. Prototypes are presented alongside finished artworks, product designs and fashion to reveal his many sources of inspiration – from a centuries-old painting to commonplace signage at construction sites. Running throughout the exhibition is an emphasis on dialogue, which Abloh creates through his inventive use of language and quotation marks, turning the objects he designs and the people who wear his clothing into ‘figures of speech’.

Early Work

Virgil Abloh got his start in fashion with a t-shirt. In the early 2000s, his fledgling designs caught the attention of Kanye West’s creative team, and he was soon invited to join West’s inner circle. Over the next decade, Abloh was involved in multiple experiments in fashion and concert merchandise design. By 2012, after having completed an internship at the Italian fashion house Fendi, he was ready to venture out on his own. He returned to graphic t-shirts, designing clothing with the streetwear brand Hood by Air and later his own brand Pyrex Vision. His early work was inspired by sports uniforms and hip-hop and skateboarder fashion, as well as provocative images and graphics found in contemporary art. It showed the first signs of Abloh’s subversive interest in taking something basic – boring, even – injecting it with new meaning, and then sending it out into the world to be seen again from a new perspective.

Fashion

Virgil Abloh’s first fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, was based on a limited template of screen-printed store-bought shirts, shorts and sweatshirts. A year later, in 2013, Abloh signalled the expanded scope of his ambition by launching his clothing brand Off-White, establishing a studio in Milan – the fashion capital of the world – and showing his work at the prestigious design showcase Paris Fashion Week. The brand’s name hints at his critical eye towards social preoccupations with race, pushing for an ambiguous place that is neither black nor white. Most of Off-White’s collections investigate a theme, tackling class, race, history and the established rules of fashion. The artist’s architectural background and interest in the urban fabric also come into play in his use of patterns and graphics that are derived from roads, signage, buildings and uniforms. The clothing in this section of the exhibition reflects Abloh’s early collaborations as well as the history of Off-White, bracketed by re-created elements of urban infrastructure that continue to inspire his fashion.

Streetwear

Before designers revolutionised high-end fashion collections by introducing elements such as sneakers and hoodies, streetwear defined the identity, status and taste of young people. The style developed organically between the worlds of hip-hop and skateboarding, both subcultures that value creativity and, most importantly, challenges to the mainstream. Since the late 1970s, hip-hop artists honed their image through their clothing choices, often customising basic components to make individualised statements. Skateboarders also gravitated to utilitarian staples such as t-shirts and workwear, highlighting their outsider status by embracing ironically out-of-fashion styles and thrift-store discards, or by altering corporate logos to create subversive messages. This section of the exhibition explores how Abloh pays homage to streetwear’s contribution to contemporary culture, using its techniques of borrowing, remixing and ironic commentary to guide his work.

Music

As with his work in fashion, Virgil Abloh connects with various subcultures and offers alternatives to the mainstream by performing wide-ranging DJ sets at venues and festivals around the world. Parallel to his clothing line Off-White, he has constructed a comprehensive visual approach to branding his work, drawing not only on his skill in graphic design, but also on his experience with Kanye West’s creative company. There, he oversaw the development of concert merchandise, album packaging and stage designs for both West and other musicians in his orbit, including Jay-Z and A$AP Rocky. This section of the exhibition presents the results of Abloh’s collaborations with these stars.

Picture of a black flag with the words "Question Everything" against a background of green trees and buildings

Virgil Abloh, “PSA”, 2019. Nylon. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Art Studio and Design Practice ©️ 2021.

A set of metal and chrome colorful artworks in the shape of chairs by Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh, Gradient Chair, 2019. Painted metal and chrome. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Art Studio and Design Practice ©️ 2021.

White and blue figurine made of foam and plexiglass, placed on a black ground

Virgil Abloh, Illinois Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis Building, 2003–2019. Foam, plexiglass. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Art Studio and Design Practice ©️ 2021.

Artwork showing a black banner that lists fuel prices in bright blue color

Virgil Abloh, “dollar a gallon” II, 2019. Mixed media. Private Collection. Courtesy of The Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Art Studio and Design Practice ©️ 2021.

Image of artwork by Virgil Abloh, “Efflorescence (Bench 1 – Short Bench)” made of concrete and graffitied, on a gray museum floor

Virgil Abloh, Efflorescence (Bench 1 – Short Bench), 2019. Graffiti on concrete. Mr. Michel and Mrs. Fati Rosenberg / Galerie kreo. Courtesy of The Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Art Studio and Design Practice ©️ 2021.

Intermezzo

The first part of the exhibition focuses on Virgil Abloh’s work in fashion and music, which is guided by the ethos of streetwear and associated subcultures. His method entails borrowing from the establishment, subverting norms and making new statements about old ideas. The second half of the show delves deeper into the political messages and social critiques embedded in his work, presenting recent collaborations and exploring his approach to prototyping. The continuous process of making, testing, remaking and retesting is common in the fashion industry and central to Abloh’s way of working across disciplines.

Black Gaze

With the 2013 launch of Off-White in Milan, Virgil Abloh challenged the elite fashion industry’s long-standing exclusion of Black talent. Abloh marketed his brand prominently on social media, appealing to a younger, more diverse generation of consumers. Off-White campaigns have celebrated Black artists, athletes and musicians, providing them with a platform and affirming their identity as creators in their own right. In 2018, Abloh assumed the role of Men’s Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the few Black designers to lead a major Parisian fashion house. He now uses his position to forge a more inclusive vision for the industry. This section of the exhibition presents Abloh’s fashion and artworks that reflect Black cultural experiences in the United States.

Design

For Virgil Abloh, design is as much about the process as it is about the final product, which he achieves by asking questions and prototyping. Picking apart established norms in the industry, including materials and imagery, he upends expectations to call attention to our surroundings. The transparency inherent in his method nods to his training in architecture and his admiration for the modernist German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose buildings make their structures and functions readily apparent. This section of the exhibition surveys Abloh’s expansive design practice, including his forays into architecture, furniture, painting, sculpture and shoes.

'The End'

Virgil Abloh’s expansive and democratic views on art and design command attention in retail stores, concert halls, social media feeds and, now, museums. This section of the exhibition presents recent works that are emblematic of Abloh’s practice of critiquing the influence of advertising, finding kinship among leading contemporary Black cultural producers, and subverting expectations. These themes emerged in his earliest work and established a basis for the projects he continues to create. For Abloh, ‘the end’ can only be a figure of speech.

Share this page