An Interview with Antwaun Sargent on "Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech”
Before desks and report cards, we sat in a circle and were given tambourines, crayons, opportunities for unfettered dance, and even nap time—though I doubt that Virgil Abloh took time for a snooze. I also doubt that there has been much snoozing for teacher, writer and curator Antwuan Sargent, who is opening doors of joy and inclusivity, urging us all to play, to respect, to build together. I spoke with him about working with Abloh on Figures of Speech at the Brooklyn Museum. No entrance exam, all ideas welcome.
Gwynned Vitello: It seems as if Virgil Abloh emerged from college as this incredible polymath after graduating from college with his architectural engineering degree. I always connect Chicago with architecture, so can you lend some insight as to how he grew up and chose that route?
Antwaun Sargent: Virgil grew up in Rockford, Illinois, right outside of Chicago. I’m also from Chicago, which is one of the things that made me familiar with his story and really resonated is that he was a typical first-generation immigrant kid. His parents are Ghaniain, and of course, they stressed the importance of school being really important. He gravitated towards architecture and engineering as a way to think about the world, and I think, in a particular way, to consider how the world had excluded him.
That’s what led him to architecture, as well as being in a city like Chicago, which has an extraordinarily storied relationship to the discipline. One of his great heroes is Mies van der Rohe. And so that’s how the story starts in this exhibition. You actually see his early sketchbooks where he is designing different things, reimagining the Chicago skyline, and inserting his own building! On a trip to Ghana, he saw a young child walking along the street and he thought, “Oh, this kid deserves a space of their own where they can play and they can be,” and so in his notebook, though unbeknownst, he designed a youth center for that kid.
You get all these moments early on in the exhibition of him dreaming about what is possible if the world was designed for people like him, young Black folks. And so he set out to do that, and that’s his “origin story,” that working across architecture, fashion, music, and design, what he was trying to do was design a world that considered him and his community.
For me, a defining quote was that his primary motivation was for the “17-year-old version of himself.” That shows so much empathy and imagination, and it seems that his utopian dreams never faltered, that he held onto them. Did his attitude change after George Floyd’s murder?
I don’t think so. I really believe that actually affirmed a lot for him. Because we worked together on this exhibition, through that tragedy, and in part because of his commitment to Black communities, I saw how it reinforced what was always front and center in his creativity.
Back to his formation as a creative, from getting a Masters’ to DJing, tell me how he caught the attention of Kanye.
I think Kanye was doing something in Chicago when they met and he quickly became part of that team in that world. He started to apply his way of thinking and his very formal engineering education around all of that stuff, including architecture, to someone who would become one of the biggest artists in the world. He became Kanye’s creative director, and that, I think, allowed him to see different possibilities in the realm of architecture and design. I believe that sparked him to continue to work that way and continue in the formal ways he had learned, applying that to the culture at large, to apply that to disciplines we maybe once would not have thought of as architecture or design. What he really did was take architecture everywhere and applied those principles to the world. In the field of architecture it’s really like, you wait, you wait and you wait. But the story of Virgil is that he felt he didn’t have time to lose, like, “I’m going to apply those principles to music, fashion, and design in all these spaces.”
I don’t know how much people consider the breadth of architecture apart from passing through or up and down a building. or the broader meaning of the word. I even think of how he had the talent to read a room as a DJ and how that was a wide form of communication.
Yeah, in some ways, that is about collaboration. He was a collaboration artist who could coalesce so many disparate voices. So there would be architects in the room, visual artists and in one case when I was in his studio, also a young kid he found on Instagram who was helping him style clothes. And the world-renowned Takashi Murakami was there—you know what I mean? The array of people he assembled to participate in his creative production to bounce ideas from, to be friends, was unbelievable. He was not, “Hey, come work on this thing so I can get all the credit.”
I see that also coming from him as a skateboarder, a group that respects the hierarchy of talent, but is open to inclusion and teaching one another. I guess he always possessed that sensitivity. So apparently, you were able to collaborate on the show before his passing.
We worked on the show form in the end, about three years, and it did evolve. In my mind, the show is a major survey that I did with a living artist. We talked about every aspect, and so we revised various aspects. What we’re doing now is just me and his team finishing the installation, but all the big ideas are Virgil’s. He worked on the show up until he passed away. We had a checklist set and all the major questions have been addressed.
How is this show different from the traveling show that originated in Chicago?
It’s a very different exhibition, starting with the fact that this really is a table exhibition. It all unfolds on tables that he designed. As I said, it opens chronologically, so you see the early homework from high school, college, and grad school so that you can see all his ideas like the sketches of shoes and him thinking about architecture in the world. You see him start to build those things, which all unfold across the tables, which were, for him, metaphors. The table is a drafting table, it’s a runway, it’s a place for people to convene and to break bread. It harkens back to the civil rights cry of being invited, of having a seat at the table. Virgil reminds us that we can ask for a seat or we can build our own table. So that’s a principle difference in that this show does not take place in typical fashion, which is generally on walls. The show itself is an architectural intervention.
And within this space, his last architectural project as a living artist is realized in this exhibition. It’s called a Social Sculpture, which is a full-scale house that he designed and we built. And within the house is another meeting place and another space for the community. So in this house, you’ll have students come and you’ll have his collaborators teach classes about fashion, design, and architecture, all the things he was trying to provide access to for young creatives. In the seven months of the exhibition, the Social Sculpture is going to turn into somewhat of a schoolhouse.
Will there be opportunities beyond, say, visual arts?
He started this lab with a professor from MIT, and one of the first questions was, “How do you design your way out of today’s leading problems?” She’s going to do some workshops, so it will be this very fluid space where you have many partners coming and really communing.
So, it’s actually within the walls of the museum?
It’s in the Great Hall, and when I say it’s an architectural intervention what I mean is that the white pillars running through the Hall are incorporated into the house. We actually took down some walls. He really opened up the space. It defies typical museum practice. Not only does he do a table show, but he has made some of the desirable objects in the last decade with Louis Vuitton, Off-White, Evian Water, and many others.
Speaking of desirable objects, it is exciting to imagine walking through a show and not feel like you might be ejected for getting too close to the art. I wonder how you’ll handle it!
It really is an act of generosity in that you will be able to get really close to the objects. This was his vision, wanting people to really experience the objects and get to see the stories that they tell, not only about him as a creator, but also about the world for which he was making them.
Will there be much text accompanying the installation?
What we did was make what we like to call show notes, and that’s modeled after his show notes for Louis Vuitton. We go deeper into his practice and list every object, as well as add additional context about them. There’s going to be a takeaway booklet that I edited in partnership with the Brooklyn Museum and designed by Alaska Alaska, that encapsulates the show. Everybody can take one, and it’s a really nice keepsake.
There must be something special in the exhibition store, right?
Yeah, there’s a specially designed store that follows the logic of the exhibition, a Church and State, as he called them. It’s undersigned in wood, like everything else, like the tables and the house, and there’s new merchandise and design expressly for this iteration of Figures of Speech.
Tell me about how you’ll be using video to accompany the show.
He started architecture films, Arch Films, with Mahfuz Sultan, right before he died. Their first collaborations as filmmakers will be on display. Of course, there will be videos from fashion shows, as well as him DJing. But there’s also audio, for example, a collaboration with Braun on a speaker system that plays this mix that Virgil made—so it’s his voice that opens the show. This is new because he and Braun were collaborating at the time of his death, so the public has never seen this. There were quite a few things from his archive that folks have just never seen, so we wanted to make this an opportunity for viewing because it’s very central to the story.
Well, he apparently knew the seriousness of his illness, but being so driven, being such an optimist, he kept working and believed so much in the power of art.
He struggled for several years, and I think, at the very least, he knew his time was limited and wanted to make the best of it. He didn’t stop working, which is really a testament to his wholehearted belief in his art. He made so many kinds of objects, and because they were often being made simultaneously, I chose a chronological display because I wanted people to see how he was thinking in one given moment. And so, you have him thinking about a dress to designing an Off-White store to thinking about making ceramics—all in one year. I love the idea that he was working on such disparate things all at once, focusing on so many ideas all at once, all while designing a fashion collection for one of the biggest fashion houses in the world. I wanted folks to really see the breadth and depth of his creativity and how expansive it was.
Did he have what most of us call a studio?
WhatsApp was his version of a studio. When I agreed to create the show, I was instantly put into, like, two or three WhatsApp groups, and the ideas would just fly. I think this was his idea of having a studio, and if I was in three, then I’m sure he had 40 or 50 of them running at once. He really had a gift for getting many types of people together. To get that many different types together, it’s unheard of. He had a real gift.
Figures of Speech will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 29, 2023