Kimberly Drew, Style Maven and Proud Art History Nerd, Discusses Virgil Abloh’s New Exhibition in Atlanta
We talked Virgil Abloh, fashion, youth culture, and how to build success as a young creative.
By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art
Whether you know her as @museummammy on Twitter and Instagram or as the founder of the wildly popular Tumblr Black Contemporary Art, writer and curator Kimberly Drew has made a name for herself as a tastemaker in the digital sphere of arts and culture.
The High Museum’s new exhibition Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” (on view through March 8, 2020) opened to much fanfare this past weekend in Atlanta. When the show premiered earlier this year at MCA Chicago, Drew interviewed Virgil Abloh and exhibition curator Michael Darling extensively.
With so much hype in Atlanta around the show, we were eager to get Drew’s insights.
Interview: Kimberly Drew
Eva Berlin: The exhibition Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” opened last weekend at the High Museum of Art. I understand you saw the show in Chicago; what were your impressions?
Kimberly Drew: I’m so excited that it’s showing in Atlanta. It’s such a great show, and it’s so multilayered.
I was really impressed by the scale of the exhibition. There are so many different worlds that Virgil’s work touches, and I think the exhibition, with the scale that y’all gave it, gave things a lot of room to breathe.
As a person who has interviewed Virgil multiple times, I thought it was really great to see each different aspect of his career kind of given the space. Because I think often when people are working in a multidisciplinary way, it can be really hard to tell those stories — especially in the way that exhibition design happens.
So, I think that first and foremost, I really was happy to see the work breathe, which is, you know, the nerdiest art-historian answer.
And second, I really had such a good time going to see the show because of who I saw in the galleries.
EB: On that note, you said on Instagram: “made it to @virgilabloh’s figures of speech at the @mcachicago — the work on the walls failed in comparison to seeing the beauty of young, black teens excited and engaged in the galleries.” Can you expand on that thought?
KD: I went first thing in the morning, and there were so many school groups who were going through. And as a black woman who works in the arts, it is very rare for me to see groups of black teens walking through galleries — much less to see black teens truly enjoying themselves in galleries.
There was something so inspiring about watching them move through the space. For me, the biggest takeaway and impression of the show was that Michael’s vision and Virgil’s vision really created a space for young people to feel like there was an exhibition in a museum for them. Or one where they were going with a certain set of information in advance. Because in my time in the arts I’ve realized that a lot of people don’t feel as comfortable going into art spaces because they don’t feel like they know what to expect. These teens may not have known what to expect, but there was a way in which seeing something familiar, you know — whether it’s the cover of Yeezus or some fashion image on the wall — you could see the way they were posturing themselves with a confidence and a familiarity. And I was just like, “Yes, this is what it should always look like.”
EB: Atlanta’s black youth culture (music, art, fashion, scholarship, etc.) is and always has been hugely innovative and influential beyond our city. How do you think this show will resonate with Atlantans?
KD: Atlanta, in my mind, especially as a Northerner, has always been a mecca for black creativity.
I think the biggest, most optimistic hope for this exhibition, and especially for young people, is that they visit an exhibition that speaks to them and also speaks to their potential as creatives.
Virgil is very, very invested in youth culture, and I think that in his artistic practice and beyond he’s trying to make things that are really decipherable and really legible. I think that the show will resonate in its legibility — and in the tangibility of his success.
He’s definitely a person who, through relationships and through hard work, has accomplished astronomical feats. And I like that it’s an opportunity to chart his progression and see the blueprint of someone like him.
Hopefully it’ll resonate in a way that other people can see what the foundations of their own blueprints are and how the sky can be the limit for them as well.
EB: You recently left your post as Social Media Manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and took the plunge into driving your own creative pursuits — including your forthcoming book with Jenna Wortham of the New York Times Magazine. Can you tell us about the book?
KD: I’ve been working for the past few years now, along with Jenna Wortham, co-editing a book called Black Futures. The Black Futures Project is designed to answer the question “What does it mean to be black and alive right now?”
One of the ways we’ve sought to answer that question is by building an anthology that features artists, writers, and critical thinkers of our time, working through tons of different media, in the hopes of building a book that will hopefully define where black culture is right now. It’s a very ambitious project, but we’ve been working to make sure that it is multidimensional, international, and very future forward.
We’re interested specifically in thinking about what happens in the internet age, especially for marginalized communities — thinking about what happens if platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr were to close. Those spaces have been so influential in us reaching out to each other, in us publishing, and [have accounted for] an incredible amount of growth in the cultural sector, so how do we make sure that we build archives for future generations to look back at the 2010s and wonder, Okay, what were folks up to?
And so, Jenna and I have been working on a book to start to answer that question. We’re hoping it will come out next year.
EB: We see so many inspired young people come through the High’s galleries, including our amazing Teen Team members — so this question is dedicated to them: You have earned remarkable success at such a young age. As a junior in college, you felt there was a gap in your education about black artists, and you wanted to learn more, and you wanted to share that learning. So you took it upon yourself to address the problem, and you created the wildly successful Tumblr Black Contemporary Art.
There are tons of young people who are full of passion, creativity, and ideas for change, but they may not see a path to success, or they may not believe in themselves and what they have to offer. What advice would you give to those young people?
KD: I would absolutely say that the biggest piece of advice that I have to give is to take yourself seriously. Because when I was building the blog, there was just never a moment that I didn’t think about how important that information was. And I didn’t have a big plan for how this would become my life, or any of the things I’m doing now; I would have just laughed in your face.
But the one thing that I knew that I could do, and the one thing that I knew needed to happen, was the blog — and it catapulted me into all these other spaces. But I think that the biggest gift that you can give yourself is following through on your ideas, especially as a young person because the stakes are so much lower — which no one ever tells you.
You have to find the things that you’re passionate about because those are the things that make life worth living. You know, not to be super fluffy and grand, but it’s true.
While you have youth and hopefully abundance ahead of you, it’s really important to find the things that you love and to take them seriously and to find value in them. Because whatever your path ends up being, finding and having hobbies is so important.
My career would have been so much shorter if I had only focused on work. I was always working on the blog, or doing studio visits, or whatever. I feel like the greatest success that I ever had was finding a passion and sticking to it and realizing that it’s a lifelong one.
Please note that the above interview has been edited for length.