Duro Olowu, the print-mad fashion designer and curator, explores textiles as art (apart from garments or interiors) in a new exhibition that celebrates the work of Robert Earl Paige. Until now, the artist and activist has been something of an unsung hero, one who remains in constant pursuit of beauty. “Robert Earl Paige: Power to the People,” “gives flowers,” as it were, to the engaging and stylish artist who Olowu describes as being a work of art in himself.
Paige labels himself “a doodler, a tinker, and a dabbler” who is driven by curiosity and a sense of responsibility. “I tell everyone I’m gonna be around till 120, that’s the way,” says the artist on a call. “Who’s going to be left here to make sure all this S-H-I-T works? Someone has to be responsible for recording this and reporting on this, and I see that as part of my assignment. Everything I do I attribute it to an assignment that I have, that I need to explore, or to do, or to share.” Adds Olowu: “I think Robert sees his art as a job, he has fun doing it, but he takes it very seriously.”
Born in a segregated Chicago in 1936, Paige earned a degree in interior design from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, while working with architecture and interiors. Paige was part of the Black Arts Movement and the AfriCobra collective active in the city. He traveled to Italy to design patterns used in fashion. One of the results of an eye-opening trip to Senegal was his Dakkabar collection of home textiles, which was designed to celebrate Black heritage and speak directly to the Black customer. “African art is abstract and symbolic. It has the power to evoke strong emotions,” Paige told the New York Times when the collection was released in 1973.
Paige, who is best known for his textile designs, says in a press release that he sees his work sitting within the framework of “an African American tradition in decorative arts.” When Olowu visited Paige at home in Chicago, he discovered an “oasis of fantastic work… and I just thought Robert is an artist and he makes things in different mediums.” As such, ceramics, collages, paintings, textiles, and assemblages are all brought together in the exhibition, which is now on view at Jean Greenberg Rohatyn’s Salon 94 gallery in the Lower East Side. “I think perception is everything, but it’s up to both institutions and galleries to help guide perception,” says Olowu. “If you keep dividing, what you’re doing is depriving the viewer. With Robert’s work, whether it is a curtain in a slightly political fabric, a ceramic, or his fabric collages, it’s really about waking up and being conscious about constantly being stimulated for your own good. I think Robert’s work is very important because it reflects a lack of self-consciousness about status, and it reflects a lack of self-consciousness about how the work is seen.”