Okwui Enwezor, 1963-2019
Very few people can claim to have significantly changed how people see and understand the world. Okwui Enwezor—curator, art critic, poet and educator—did just that. With an irresistible combination of intellectual rigour and sartorial elegance, Okwui challenged the contemporary (and overwhelmingly Western and European) art world’s limited horizons. He did this by expanding the lexicon of contemporary art to encompass artists and ideas from every corner of the globe, framed by his astute understanding of the relationship of art to political and historical currents.
Having arrived in the US from Nigeria to study political science, Okwui was soon immersed in the downtown New York art scene pursuing his twin passions of poetry and contemporary art. In 1994, he founded, with Salah M. Hassan, Chika Okeke-Agulu and Olu Oguibe, the hugely influential art magazine NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art which created an important critical platform for writing about African and African diaspora artists.
I first met Okwui when he approached me as Director of Iniva to collaborate with him as publisher of an anthology of writings on contemporary African art. Probably the first survey of its kind which assessed the contribution of African artists and their ideas unfettered from anthropological and colonial perspectives, Reading the Marketplace: African Art from Theory to Market Place soon became a seminal book.
Okwui went on to curate a number of groundbreaking exhibitions and art biennials (often in collaboration with other important curators and thinkers) which radically transformed the contemporary art agenda including Trade Routes, the second Johannesburg Bienniale in 1997 and Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 which toured the US and Germany extensively in 2001-2.
In 1997, Okwui was appointed Artistic Director of the 11th edition of Documenta, one of the most important international exhibitions which takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years. No-one had previously planned or executed Documenta on the same scale of intellectual and artistic ambition as Okwui did. Citing Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Okwui’s Documenta was the first major international exhibition to plot the emergence of a post-colonial identity in the aftermath of empire. Working with six co-curators as well as writers and intellectuals from the four corners of the globe, Okwui structured the project around five platforms. Four discursive platforms which took place between 2001 and 2002 explored questions of democracy, creolisation, conflict and resolution. Stuart Hall participated in two of these platforms contributing important papers on democracy and creolisation. The final and fifth platform was the exhibition itself in Kassel.
By 2015 when Okwui curated the Venice Biennale, the world had already begun to turn away from the more inclusive and radical global agenda that Okwui represented. Characteristically, his response was to analyse the current political times and respond with a bold and expansive call for a collective re-visioning of our contingent futures. Responding to ‘a global landscape that again lies shattered and in disarray’, Okwui proposed a statement of intent—‘All the World’s Futures’—under which he convened the work of 136 artists in what he described as a parliament of forms: ‘a coming-together to think about our common work’. At its core was the Arena, a performance space designed by the architect David Adjaye where performances were staged by different artists including Sonia Boyce and Jeremy Deller. Throughout the duration of the Biennale, all four volumes of Marx’s Das Capital were read aloud by participants directed by the artist Isaac Julien.
Between 2011 and 2018, Okwui was Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany. In March 2016, he contributed to a panel discussion on culture, identity and the contemporary art museum, organised by the Stuart Hall Foundation at Tate Modern in London. Preparing for the 80th anniversary of the Haus der Kunst which had once been the flagship of Nazi German architecture and art, Okwui underscored the critical importance of leading an institution whose mission was now to be a global centre for contemporary art, dedicated to exploring diverse histories.
He staged a number of important exhibitions at Haus der Kunst including the first major retrospective of the painter Frank Bowling. Okwui wrote an erudite and encyclopaedic essay on Frank’s work underpinned by meticulous research and conversations with the artist. His careful attention to and deep engagement with artists and their work was the basis for a large number of dialogues and friendships with artists from all over the world which endured over very many years.
At the end of 2016, Okwui curated what was probably the most ambitious exhibition of his career. With 350 artworks and 218 artists from 65 countries, Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-1965 was a monumental survey of the twenty years following the end of World War II, mapping how artists coped with and responded to the traumas of the Holocaust and the atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the rise of nation-building, decolonization and liberation movements.
For Okwui, the aesthetic could always be political and the political aesthetic: ‘There’s always a misunderstanding, as if the socio-political cannot have aesthetic authority, cannot be experiential and powerful, engaging and enduring.’
He will be sorely missed.
— Gilane Tawadros
Vice-Chair, Stuart Hall Foundation; Chief Executive, DACS