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Iconic curator: Okwui Enwezor

Maverick Life


Iconic curator: Okwui Enwezor

Okwui Enwezor, Director, 56th Venice Biennale attends the 2014 Frieze New York Art Fair at Randall's Island on May 9, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)

Often credited for turning global attention to the rich and expansive art of the Global South, he battled fiercely against the deeply embedded and reductive nature of the Euro- and Western-centric art world. This week, our Maverick Life Art School series takes a closer look at the undeniably iconic Okwui Enwezor

Curator: Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor (1963-2019)

Born: Calabar, Nigeria 

Okwui Enwezor 

“How Okwui Enwezor Changed the Artworld”, reads the title of a 2014 Wall Street Journal Article. A headline of the same name was published later in the Frieze Magazine. In The Guardian, he was called “Giant of the Art World” while The New York Times coined Enwezor “the Curator Who Remapped the Artworld”, and the “Curator Who Shaped a Global View of Contemporary Art”. The list goes on.

Suffice it to say, Okwui Enwezor, a poet, art critic, art historian and curator, was a man of astonishing and global influence — an art world giant, whose legacy has not, and probably will not, be forgotten for many years to come. 

Born on 23 October 1963 in Calabar, a port city in the South of Nigeria, Enwezor was part of an affluent Igbo family. The reality of the Biafran war (1967-70) meant that much of his childhood was spent moving around to avoid conflict; the family eventually settled in the eastern Nigerian city of Enugu. 

The constant displacement and uncertain state that the war caused his family taught Enwezor “what it means to be the Other, even within the rooms of one’s own home”, he told the New York Times Magazine in 2002. Empathy for this positionality was a running thread throughout the rest of his astounding accomplishments, particularly his curatorial practice, which, for the most part, worked to centralise art that was considered peripheral at the time. 

Theaster Gates, Spike Lee, Okwui Enwezor and Dee Rees attend Theaster Gates, Spike Lee and Dee Rees, in conversation with Okwui Enwezor, for the presentation of film program ‘Soggettiva Theaster Gates’ at Fondazione Prada on September 21, 2018 in Milan, It (Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

At age 19, Enwezor moved to the Bronx in New York City to begin his studies in political science at what is now called New Jersey City University. Later he moved to downtown Manhattan, where he became immersed in the art scene of the bustling city, reading poetry at bars and attending gallery openings. 

“What was apparent,” he told the New York Times in this article, “was that most Americans I knew and met were not actually worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society.” It was at this point that Enwezor noticed a gaping hole in the conversations taking place in the art world. Nobody was talking about African art. Or Chinese art. Or Middle Eastern art. Art world rhetoric was shamefully, reductively, and narrowly zoomed in on Western art. 

This proved to be a fact that he aspired to change. 

In 1994, Enwezor, along with Okeke-Agulu, Salah M Hassan and Olu Oguibe, started Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. According to its website, the journal (still published today), advocates for art rooted in Africa, but on a global scale. It was perhaps the first of its kind and became relatively popular in New York and other art hubs around the world. 

In 1996, Enwezor had his first breakthrough as a curator, putting together a show at the esteemed Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, called “In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present”. Featuring 30 African photographers, the exhibition “heralded a new vision of African art — a uniquely African vision – through a distinctly nontraditional medium” (according to Adam Shatz of the New York Times.) It was a show about Africa by contemporary African artists, and it challenged long-standing, misguided Western conceptions about the multifaceted continent.

At the time, this was a drastic and pioneering exhibition, and it received a lot of attention from the media. It also led to Enwezor’s placement as the director of the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, the first of several biennale’s he would later head. (More on this slightly controversial escapade later.) 

Okwui Enwezor attends Theaster Gates, Spike Lee and Dee Rees, in conversation with Okwui Enwezor, for the presentation of film program ‘Soggettiva Theaster Gates’ at Fondazione Prada on September 21, 2018 in Milan, It (Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

His other major accomplishments include (but are not limited to) his curatorial work as director of the 2002 Documenta (possibly the world’s most important showcase of contemporary arts, often called the “Olympics” of the art world), the 2008 Gwangju Biennale (Seoul, South Korea), 2012 Paris Triennale, and the 2015 Venice Biennale. 

The Corderie space at the Arsenale at the 56 Venice Biennale Art on May 6, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)
The Japan Pavillion at the Giardini during the 56 Venice Biennale Art on May 8, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)
The Hungary Pavilion at the Giardini during the 56 Venice Biennale Art on May 8, 2015 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Awakening/Getty Images)

Later, he became the director of Haus der Kunst, a non-collecting contemporary art museum in Munich. His role there ended in a scandal when the human resource manager of the museum was accused of attempting to recruit staff members to the Church of Scientology (a highly monitored institution in Germany.)

In March 2019, Enwezor passed away from cancer, dying at the tragically young age of 55. 

Why is his work important? 

The list of accomplishments that Enwezor was “the first African man” to achieve is quite long. It includes his position as the director of 2002 Documenta and the 2015 Venice Biennale (he was one of only two people in the world to have been named director of both). 

More importantly, however, Enwezor was a pioneer in placing art from the Global South (the developing world) onto the international circuit. His exhibitions aggressively challenged antiquated notions of the Western canon, asserting, rightfully, that there was (and always has been) more to the (art) world than Western culture. 

It was Enwezor’s opinion that the narrow canon needed to be expanded: “If we have an open mind, Western art doesn’t have to be seen in opposition to art from elsewhere, but can be seen in a dialogue that helps protect the differences and decisions that present the material circumstances and conditions of production in which artists fashion what their view of enlightenment can be,” he told Companion magazine in an interview. He was determined to promote a truly global (nonwestern-centric) view of art. 

Further, his curatorial work was almost always unashamedly tied to deeper political messages, expanding the meaning and responsibility that was traditionally associated with the term “curator”. Not only did he put together shows with artworks that were aesthetically complex and appealing, he often included academic discussions and panels, literary readings, and film screenings as part of his curatorial practices. His exhibitions were famous for their extensive catalogues, which were often hundreds of pages long and included essays by important thinkers like Homi K Bhabha, Édouard Glissant, and Karl Marx. 

His theory that art is an expression of social change, and that an artist’s exploration of the world around them offers insights that are meaningful and profound carries through his work. “Artists see things” Enwezor stated in the interview mentioned above, “they reflect upon them and try to find ways in which their ideas and art can explore the eternal conundrum.” 

“After him”, wrote Adrian Piper, Berlin-based artist, and philosopher, “parading one’s ignorance of contemporary African American art, or South American art, or African art, or Indian art, or Middle Eastern art, or Chinese art was no longer fashionably elitist but rather stupidly lowbrow. The stupidly lowbrow were not amused. And the tectonic platelets on which they squatted were shifting.” 

What the learned minds say about Enwezor 

Glenn D. Lowry, the current director of New York City’s Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA) is said to have stated that Enwezor, who he worked with on several occasions, was “an extraordinarily intelligent and insightful man who has opened many people’s eyes”. 

Adam Shatz, art critic at the New York Times wrote that Enwezor was the “most influential and controversial curator on the international art scene […] what’s new about Enwezor is the way he bridges the gap between the art world’s two self-appointed vanguards — one aesthetic, the other ideological […] Enwezor transcends this divide, or carefully walks its fault line by spotlighting work in which protest and visual pleasure are often deeply interwoven.” 

According to Jörg Heiser, co-editor of Frieze Magazine, Enwezor’s genius lay in his ability to dig deep into the past and find previously invisible interconnections, putting works of the globe into context with each other in unseen but ultimately sensical ways. For this reason, Enwezor “clearly emerged as one of the strongest curatorial and intellectual voices to tackle the art world’s persistent Euro- and Western-centrism.” 

Closer to home, Roy Bester, associate professor of Art History and deputy head of Wits School of Arts (who worked with Enwezor on two separate occasions), wrote “Enwezor surfaced the art histories that underpinned contemporary art. He pushed from below, from what was past, into the present. It was always turned over, recognisable but different”. The “unrelenting global sensibility” that Enwezor brought to his work in South Africa, “finally ripped the local art world from the insulating effects of apartheid, especially the cultural boycott”. 

Okwui Enwezor during an interview at Museum Africa on February 12, 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Sydney Seshibedi)

Of course, rattling the very core of traditional art conventions, Enwezor had his critics. Famous American art critic Dave Hickey thought that Enwezor was “a perfect product of the system […] Here’s a critic with third-world roots and a party-line Northern European vision of art practice. It’s basically a Protestant view of art and is less concerned with art than with the ideas that inform it.” 

Whatever his critics may have thought, what Adrian Piper writes seems to be widely accepted: Enwezor “redefined the mission of an art magazine, redefined the mission of a collecting institution, redefined the mission of Documenta, redefined the mission of the Venice Biennale, etc, and no backtracking was possible.” 

Iconic curatorial moments 

Having “curated one game-changing, seriously international exhibition after another” (said Adrian Piper), Enwezor has a long legacy of incredible moments. Here are five of them:

Johannesburg Biennale, second edition, 1997. “Trade Routes: History and Geography”

Enwenzor’s first Biennale, this extremely ambitious project was an initial insight into what would become a central theme in his curatorial practice for the next two decades: demonstrating that the history of art was inextricably linked to the histories of people and their movements around the world. There were, however, many issues with budget overdraw and impossible workloads, as well as a lukewarm reception from locals. There has not been another Johannesburg Biennale since.  

“The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994.” First exhibited at Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, 2001, and at MoMA PS1 in 2002.

A survey of decolonial movements in Africa and their impact on art over the course of nearly 50 years. Roberta Smith of The Times called it “one of those rare occasions when the hyperbolic term ‘landmark exhibition’ is not an overstatement.” 

Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany, 2002.

Probably Enwezor’s most famous accomplishment, the Documenta website itself called Enwezor’s work the “first truly global, postcolonial Documenta exhibition”. Of the 117 artists that Enwezor chose to work with, over half of them were from the developing world. “Lucid, rarified, an uncompromisingly serious,” writes Jason Farago of the New York Times, “Documenta 11 stomped on the Western-Centric “internationalism” […] and replaced it with a historically engaged view of the whole, roiling planet, where artists and images were in constant motion.” 

“Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965.” At Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. 2016-17

This exhibition examined the effect that the first 20 years following World War II had on art in places like Mozambique, China and the Middle East, often ignored in its turbulent aftermath. Through this, Enwezor presented an alternative progression of art movements: instead of abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism etc, (i.e. the Western art history flow), he highlighted movements such as Brazil’s Neo-Concretism and Japan’s Gutai avant-gardists. “The show — and its massive 800-page catalogue —  effectively tore a hole in the continuum of art history, showing that myopic focus on the US and Europe would not be enough to portray a full picture of the wild, weird, and groundbreaking art produced in the two decades after World War II”, wrote Alex Greenberger in ARTnews.

Venice Biennale, Italy, 2015. Title: “All the World’s Futures”

Yet another extensive exhibition that attempted to explore the breadth of contemporary art, and the multitude of ways in which colonialism and capitalism have impacted people around the world. In his title, Enwezor suggested his interest in thinking about alternative ways to live — a way forward for the world. DM/ML


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