Okwui Enwezor, an influential Nigerian curator whose large-scale exhibitions displaced European and American art from its central position as he forged a new approach to art for a global age. Enwezor was, without doubt, the most influential curator of his generation, noted for bringing an unexpected global perspective to mega-exhibitions like Documenta and the Venice Biennale. From the late 1990s onward, during an era of proliferating biennials and blockbuster exhibitions, he was a master showman. But with his erudition and scholarly demeanor, Enwezor, who was born in Nigeria and moved to New York in the early 1980s, was able to steer clear of the glitzier commercial tendencies of art world spectacles and produce meaningful large-scale interventions.
In 1998, on the strength of “In/Sight” and an acclaimed biennial in Johannesburg, Mr. Enwezor was named artistic director of the 11th edition of Documenta, one of the world’s best-attended art shows, with a budget that year of more than $20 million.
Okwui Enwezor exhibitions were typified by weighty themes and strong statements from non-Western artists, as well as by contributions from writers, critics, filmmakers, and performance artists. His Venice Biennale featured live readings from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital—all three volumes! Such lively participations always made his exhibitions engaging and entertaining; they were rich with ideas and complemented by the visions of younger artists, as well as by mini-retrospectives of artists who were previously overlooked or marginalized.
“Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex,” he told the Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2013.
Okwuchukwu Enwezor Biography and Profile
Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor was born on Oct. 23, 1963, in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. During the Biafran war of 1967-70, he and his family were forced to move dozens of times, settling at last in the eastern city of Enugu. In ambitious, erudite, carefully argued exhibitions staged in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States, Mr. Enwezor (pronounced en-WEH-zore) presented contemporary art against a backdrop of world history and cultural exchange.
He was an educator, too, serving from 2005 to 2009 as dean of the San Francisco Art Institute. And from 2011 until last year he was director of the Haus der Kunst, a leading Munich museum. There he helped organize the monumental “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic” (2016—17).
Enwezor: “Until the sixties, we associated the construction of contemporary art with movements and with cities. Paris was an inner center, with a later shift to New York. But this started to change by the end of the 1980s, with the biennale art exhibitions emerging in the role that cities once held. In the nineties I was a member of an emerging generation of curators in our early thirties. I had the great privilege to actually direct a biennale myself, and that was an enormous boost to my confidence.”
Self-assured, peripatetic and unfailingly dapper — he favored dark double-breasted suits and the occasional neckerchief, and once made the cover of Men’s Vogue in Italy — Mr. Enwezor never doubted that an African had every right to take the lead at Western art institutions.
Mr. Enwezor’s commitments to cosmopolitanism and expanded historical narratives were crystallized early in his career. In South Africa in 1996, shortly after his appointment to direct his first major show, he watched the waves crash at the extreme southern tip of the continent.
“I was astonished by the experience of standing there, where the two oceans met,” he later remembered. “I knew at that very moment this would be my concept: the meeting of worlds.”
He began his university career in Nigeria before moving to the United States in 1982, living in the Bronx and enrolling at what is now New Jersey City University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduating, he moved to downtown Manhattan, where he performed poetry at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, attended gallery openings and danced all night at clubs like the Palladium and the Roxy. Yet the young Mr. Enwezor was “not overly awed or impressed by what the art world was throwing up,” he recalled this year in a New Museum show catalog. African artists, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, had almost no exposure.
Enwezor: “It is important to clarify what we mean when we talk about art. Because art is not what happens in museums. Growing up in Nigeria, “art” and “contemporary art” were completely different things. Had I been in contact with contemporary art in Nigeria? Yes – I had friends who were artists. And you can’t be in Nigeria without being in contact with art every single day, because you have lots of cultural and artistic festivals. I think we really need to start unlearning the notion of confining the arts to particular institutional spheres. Art was part of the everyday, something I participated in myself as a young child, in a number of social rituals or coming-of-age moments that my parents insisted I go through because they are a part of our tradition.”
Opinion of the Contemporary Art Scene
It seems to me that it has really been exploded and I believe that we are currently reassessing the exploded nature – the commodification – of contemporary art. You know that art has always been commodified. I think we need to rediscover Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of distinctions – are we capable of seeing distinctions that are not exclusive or a retreat into hermeticism? I think the challenge is maintaining a balance between many people adopting art as lifestyle and the necessity of meaning-making – a challenge created by the huge infusion of capital into the art world at present.
I am really excited by the fact that contemporary art has continued to open to the rest of the world – in the Middle East, in China, in India, in Africa. It is a huge challenge for the curator to make an assessment of all of this, especially if you are not well informed about these regions. This is a challenge for museums and institutions.
On the one hand, I wanted to address the exploded, off-center universe of contemporary art; the emergence of the global sphere over the national sphere as a place of conversation. I also wanted to off-center and de-ritualize the documenta, to move it from its foundation in Kassel and put the documenta in the world, not have the world come to the documenta.
For me the documenta has always been more than simply an exhibition – it is a meaning-making machine. I think our approach to renewing the documenta was similar to the way in which curatorial praxis was moving towards discourses as they emerged. The discourses themselves were not peripheral to the exhibition but integral to understanding the logic of the curatorial methodology. What we wanted to do with the documenta was not just simply work in secret and then raise the curtain like a magician – we wanted to do what we call “transparent research,” which is to say our intentions had to be apparent from the outset. Our goal was to turn the run-up to the exhibition into part of the exhibition.
The first platform of the documenta was held in Vienna from January to April 2001, the aim being to collaborate with other institutions across different cities. This really was a curatorial experiment, not only to test the limits of what the exhibition was capable of absorbing but also to work with what I call “epic time.” What if we stress the time of the work and really work with the logic of temporality as such? So we showed films like Ulrike Ottinger’s, which is about eight hours long. I remember a discussion I had with Ulrike. Her film was much longer, and we went back and forth, you know – “Isn’t it possible to shorten it?” – “I can’t make it shorter! It has to be eight hours.”
Going by the numbers, yes. I made it clear when I took the job – in my documenta, I wanted to double the number of non-Western artists compared to all the past documentas. But the inclusiveness was not just a question of numbers, but of discourses as well. Accordingly, in 2001 we already began with our first platform in Vienna, called “Democracy Unrealized.” The second platform was called “Experiments with Truth”; it dealt with the transition of justice and the process of brutal reconciliation, really rethinking the post-war reorganization of the global order. A third platform, held in St. Lucia, was more closed – by invitation, so not really open to the public. It was called “Créolité and Creolization” and dealt with questions of language and mixture, of hybridization.
Similarly, we’d had a Darboven; art of this kind is really not just about the scale of the work, but also the density of the temporal structure in which the work is embedded.
Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor Quick Facts
- Enwezor was the first African-born curator to organize the Biennale, a show that began in 1895, and the first non-European to oversee Documenta, the every-five-years exhibition in Kassel, Germany, which he organized in 2002. The latter show, Documenta XI, defined his curatorial sensibility: venturesome, unabashedly intellectual, and intent on rethinking how institutions operate.
- Born in the city of Calabar in southern Nigeria in 1963, Enwezor moved to New York in 1982, began curating shows regularly in the 1990s.
- He was the director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst from 2011 until last June, when he stepped down for health reasons.
- Enwezor had held a range of posts, including as an adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography in New York (where he curated the landmark South African photography exhibition “Rise and Fall of Apartheid”) and the dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute.
- He served as a curatorial advisor for Ghana’s first-ever Venice Biennale pavilion, which will include El Anatsui’s work.
- His many standout exhibitions included “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim Museum’s outpost in downtown Manhattan in 1996, the second edition of the Johannesburg Biennale in 1996–97, “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994” at MoMA PS1 in 2002, the 2012 edition of the Palais de Tokyo’s triennial, and “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” at Haus der Kunst in 2016–17.
- In 1994, he founded the magazine NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1994.
- In 2005 Enwezor was named dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he would remain until 2009.
- And as an adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography in New York, he organized trailblazing exhibitions like “Snap Judgement: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” in 2006 and “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” in 2012. “The role of photography in the struggle against apartheid is far larger than we can really imagine,” Enwezor said, discussing that last show in ARTnews. “It became one of the most persuasive, instrumental, ideological tools.”
- In 2011, Enwezor became director of the Haus der Kunst, the sprawling kunsthalle in Munich, Germany, which under his watch hosted solo exhibitions of work by Stan Douglas, Georg Baselitz, Ellen Gallagher, James Casebere, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hanne Darboven, Frank Bowling, Matthew Barney, and many more, as well as, in 2016, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” an unprecedented survey of the story of postwar modernism around the world that included some 350 pieces by more than 200 artists.
Enwezor did open doors, influencing many Eurocentric museums to make strides in collecting and highlighting modern artists who hailed from historically under-reprsented regions. Noting “a new generation of curators and museum professionals with different fields of knowledge” that was coming of age, in a 2017 interview, Enwezor said, “I hope these people will give institutions the opportunity to think about how to complicate the narrative of societies with colonial affiliations, which necessarily are mixed societies. 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 their view of what enlightenment could be.”
“I see my role not just simply to be a curator and make exhibitions, I want to be an enabler for my curators,” he said in his 2014 interview with Chiu, discussing his position as director of Haus der Kunst. “I want to be . . . the backup singer for their solo acts.”
In an interview last August, Enwezor said he was “still optimistic and full of hope” despite the cancer diagnosis that led him to leave the Haus der Kunst. And even though he had been undergoing treatment for more than three years, he still found time to organize exhibitions. This month, the Haus der Kunst, which he left amid controversies including a budgeting shortfall, opened his survey of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. Enwezor was noticeably absent from the opening.
Okwui Enwezor died on 15 March 2019, at age 55 after a years-long battle with cancer.
“Okwui’s passing is a huge loss to those of us who could call him a friend, but also a devastating loss to the art community as a whole,” the architect David Adjaye tells artnet News.
“Okwui was this enormously prophetic figure, wise beyond his years, whose insights—vision, if you will—literally shaped the universe many of us now inhabit,” John Akomfrah tells artnet News.
Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor is survived by his daughter, Uchenna Enwezor; his mother, Bernadette Enwezor; and four sisters, Rita Ogor Enwezor-Udorji, Maureen Enwezor, Francesca Enwezor-Onyia and Nkiru Enwezor-Onyanta. He was previously married to Muna el Fituri.