360˚Me: Yesomi Umolu

woman in purple dress sitting by window

The artistic director of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, and curator at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, shares her favourite things

By Becky Sunshine   Tuesday 8 October, 2019

The artistic director of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, Yesomi Umolu has many strings to her bow, with roles as the director and curator at the Logan Center Exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Born in Nigeria, raised in London, she has been living and working in the US for the past decade, applying her multi-disciplinary expertise to everything she turns her hand to.
Here she shares everything from her inspirations and heroes to how she likes winds down after a day's work.

The film
‘I was blown away by Moonlight and have watched it a lot. I love the narrative, of course, but also the aesthetics, both in a visual sense and in terms of sound. I also really like Steve McQueen and his practice, his early films particularly. His sensibility always leads to an amazing experience.’

The artwork
‘I really admire John Akomfrah. When I was growing up, he was part of this wave of black British production that was quite experimental, connected to a social moment. I think the films he’s producing now never disappoint. I also like the artist Candice Lin. She does a lot of sculptural work that’s really tactile. Her stuff seems to breathe; it feels like living entities. She looks at questions around intersexual identity and presents them as installations.’
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison book cover
man helping young boy float in ocean
The look
‘I definitely don’t wear high-end labels – I’m not a fashionista – so I tend to shop on the high street, which matches my aesthetic. I’m supposed to look like a curator, aren’t I? Lots of long, black flowy things, but actually I’m a really practical person. I have great pieces from COS and Aritzia, and a nice jacket from All Saints, too. My look is usually pretty pared-down. And you need layers living in Chicago. I recommend the Canadian company Mackage. It’s beautifully designed, but also functional.’

The cause
‘My aim has always been to try to create spaces and exhibitions that are open and accessible to a younger me. If there’s another young person who might not have anything to do with the arts, but we can open that door, ignite an interest and they feel like they can engage, then that’s it. Chicago is easy to be proud of. People are open and collaborative, and have a strong civic responsibility here. Being the artistic director of the Biennial is a lot of work, but I can’t imagine a better place to do it.’

The destination
‘I’m definitely an urbanite. In the past, if I’ve had some time off, I’d often go to another city and explore, do the museums. But, these days, I want to be somewhere remote, near nature. Recently, we went to Sedona in Arizona, which was so beautiful. There are these red rock formations and it has a little bit of a hippie vibe. We went hiking, which was great, and visited Tulum in Mexico, but that has changed a lot. Also, being in the Midwest, we’re close to Michigan,which is a great place for lakefront escapes.’
man kneeling in church
rocky desert mountains
man singing into mic
The hero
‘There have been some very strong female voices that have influenced me. Sally Tallant, who was at the Serpentine Gallery in London and is now the director of the Queens Museum in New York, has been a mentor. She’s a really smart, fierce woman and very interested in opening up conversations about the arts. I also have a good friend, colleague and mentor in Clara Kim, a senior curator at London’s Tate Modern. She’s one of those people who believes in direct relationships with practitioners and works hard to cultivate those. I think I’ve had great strong, female heroines.’

The routine
‘My skincare routine is really simple, and I often mix my own natural oils for skin and hair. I cleanse with coconut oil and water, and avoid soap, on my face particularly. I make my own shampoo, too, with African black soap. Makeup-wise, it’s eyeliner, mascara, maybe a little concealer, and I’m done.’

The detox/retox
‘I got into running when I lived in Michigan a few years ago, so here in Chicago I can run by the lake, then sit near the rocks and chill. I don’t follow diets, but I tend to eat healthily. My partner is a great a cook, so we experiment in the kitchen. For me, switching off is spending time with family and friends. I like to be around people – I’m definitely a people person.’ 

Lead image: Yesomi Umolu (Lucy Hewitt)

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