Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019). | Photo: Venice Biennale

 

A LEADING LIGHT in the art world has dimmed. Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), the internationally renowned curator and critic who served as artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale, died March 15 in Munich after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 55. Enwezor served as artistic director of The Haus der Kunst from 2011 to 2018. The Munich museum confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Born in Calabar, Nigeria, Ewenzor lived in New York City and Munich.

Intensely engaged with the history, culture, and politics of the world, his curatorial practice prioritized both intellectual and aesthetic rigor. Enwezor entered the field in response to the absence of representation and regard for contemporary African perspectives and the cultural complexity of the continent. Leading by enduring example, Enwezor pushed the contemporary art world to broaden its Western orientation.

Following news of Enwezor’s death, an outpouring of remembrances was posted on social media with artists, fellow curators, and institutions expressing their grief and praising his contributions to the field.

The Studio Museum in Harlem issued a statement on Instagram accompanied by a photograph Thelma Golden took of Enwezor in Munich. The statement said: “We are truly saddened to hear of the death of Okwui Enwezor. As a pioneering curator, scholar, professor, and museum director, Enwezor completely transformed the landscape for artists, institutions, and discourse throughout the world. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy is lasting and profound.” Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, told artnet News Enwezor “will go down in history as one of the greatest curators of all time.”

“[Okwui] Enwezor completely transformed the landscape for artists, institutions, and discourse throughout the world.”
— Studio Museum in Harlem

ENWEZOR ROSE TO PROMINENCE curating a succession of biennial-style exhibitions, from Johannesburg (1996–97) to Seville, Spain (2006), Gwangju, South Korea (2008), and Paris (2012). In 2002, he served as artistic director of Documenta 11, the international exhibition staged every five years in Kassel, Germany. He was the first non-European to direct the exhibition and he centered the programming primarily around African, Asian, and Latin American artists.

More than a dozen years later, he landed the pinnacle biennial post. He served as artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. That was a historic appointment, too. Enwezor is the first and only black curator to direct Documenta or the Venice Biennale, which was inaugurated in 1895. In addition, he is only the second curator ever to have served as artistic director of both. (Swiss artist, curator, and art historian Harald Szeeman did it, too.)

He titled the Venice exhibition “All the World’s Futures” and featured 136 artists and collectives, including Sonia Boyce, Ellen Gallagher, Kay Hassan, Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Steve McQueen, Wangechi Mutu, Emeka Ogboh, Adrian Piper, and Lorna Simpson. More than 35 artists of African descent were included, representing nearly 25 percent of participants.

“We are in a moment that we can say is a very strong challenge to Western exceptionalism,” Enwezor told ARTnews in advance of the exhibition. “We have really entered into an era of post-Westernism.” He hoped the exhibition would stir both a visual and intellectual response. He continued: “People will get out of it what they want. …The exhibition has many different layers—visual, aural, physical—sometimes formally beautiful, sometimes dissonant rather than simply mannered.”

“We are in a moment that we can say is a very strong challenge to Western exceptionalism. …We have really entered into an era of post-Westernism.”
— Okwui Enwezor


Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale, with Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta (March 6, 2015). | Photo courtesy Venice Biennale

 

EARLY ON, ENWEZOR had a major breakthrough that raised his profile. He co-curated “In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 To The Present” (1996) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In the New York Times, Holland Cotter called the exhibition “fantastic, a revelation.”

Ambitious exhibitions followed throughout Enwezor’s career. In 2002, he organized “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” a sweeping survey at MoMA PS1. The exhibition featured 50 artists from 22 countries working in a wide range of mediums and disciplines. His most powerful shows were political, “The Short Century” among them.

A decade after “In/Sight,” Enwezor organized “Snap Judgements: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” (2006) at the International Center of Photography (ICP). The show was a bookend of sorts to the earlier photography exhibition. “Snap Judgements” toured internationally to five additional venues and featured 250 works by 30 artists from throughout the continent.

“They play with Africanness, customize it, make it personal, avoid it, ignore it, bring it to the international table and take from that table, while building on the work of their predecessors,” Cotter said. The show changed the narrative around contemporary African photography.

His exhibition ‘Snap Judgements’ changed the narrative around contemporary African photography.

MORE RECENTLY, Enwezor mounted noteworthy shows at Haus der Kunst. He curated “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” (2012-15) which showcased South African photography spanning 60 years. Organized by the Munich museum, the exhibition opened at ICP in New York City.

A grand undertaking, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” (2016-17) sought to reframe the lens of post-war art history, exploring the era “from multiple perspectives—East and West, North and South, colonizer and colonized, Pacific and Atlantic.” American artists such as William de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha, were featured alongside Picasso and artists from Japan, Nigeria, Brazil, and Iran, among other nations.

Also at Haus der Kunst, “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi” was dedicated to large-scale abstractions, including Bowling’s “map paintings” (1967-1971), which explore place, history, geography, and narrative. Many of the paintings by the Guyana-born British artist were displayed publicly for the first time.

Last June, Enwezor’s departure from Haus der Kunst was abrupt. The museum issued a statement that included a quote from the curator in which he said he was leaving due to health reasons. The museum statement also said Enwezor’s tenure had concluded based on a joint decision with the board.

Subsequently, Haus der Kunst canceled a long-planned solo exhibition with artist Joan Jonas, postponed a show with Theaster Gates and, months later, scrapped Adrian Piper’s retrospective, claiming programming was scaled back due to financial mismanagement in the recent past. In response to the insinuation, Enwezor vigorously defended his tenure in an interview originally published by Spiegel.

 


From left, Theaster Gates, Spike Lee, Okwui Enwezor, and Dee Rees participated in a discussion about a new film series conceived by Gates in coordination with his exhibition “The Black Image Corporation” at the Prada Foundation, Milan, Italy. | Courtesy Prada Group

 

IN THE MONTHS leading up to his passing, Enwezor continued to travel, engage, and make exhibitions. In September, he led a discussion with Theaster Gates, Spike Lee, and Dee Rees at the Prada Foundation in Milan, where Gates was introducing a new film series in coordination with his exhibition “The Black Image Corporation.”

According to ArtDaily Enwezor was working on a show dealing directly with the tone and tenor of U.S. Presidential leadership. He “had embarked on a challenging exhibition project titled ‘Grief and Grievance,’ pivoting on two public speeches: Barack Obama’s eulogy in 2015 for the Charleston victims of a white supremacist attack, and Donald Trump’s Gettysburg address, ten days after announcing his presidential race.”

Enwezor was also serving as a strategic advisor for the Ghana Pavilion at the forthcoming 58th Venice Biennale in May. The West African nation is participating in the biennale for the first time and British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, is designing its national pavilion. (Adjaye also created exhibition spaces for Enwezor at the 2015 Venice Biennale.) Titled “Ghana Freedom,” the exhibition is curated by filmmaker Nana Oforiatta Ayim and will feature artists Felicia Abban, John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, Selasi Awusi Sosu, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

“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,” Adjaye told artnet News.

“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.” — David Adjaye

Last week, “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale” opened at the Haus der Kunst. Curated by Enwezor, the exhibition is described as the “largest-ever” survey of the artist’s 50-year career. In addition to his signature sculptural textiles made with bottle caps, many other mediums are represented including wood sculptures, wall reliefs, ceramic sculptures, as well as drawings, prints, and books.

Upon his passing, Haus der Kunst issued the following statement on Instagram: “With his courageous visions with a global ambition, Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) changed our perspective on contemporary art fundamentally. We are proud and honored to have worked with him on more than 60 exhibitions since 2011 here in Munich. The exhibition ‘El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,’ that was opened a few days ago and curated by Okwui Enwezor, is his farewell gift to the city of Munich, to an international public and the professional world.”

Given what appear to have been contentious circumstances and conflicting views in the wake of his departure from the museum, it is hard to parse the statement. Nevertheless, on its face, it sounds like a genuine appreciation for Enwezor’s vision and contributions.

 


EL ANATSUI, Installation view of “Tiled Flower Garden,” 2019, Haus der Kunst, Munich. | Photo by Maximilian Geuter

 

GONE TOO SOON, his legacy is formidable. Over the past 25 years, Enwezor held groundbreaking appointments, helped educate and train a generation of curators, and collaborated with countless institutions and artists—providing opportunities for emerging talents, challenging mid-career artists to push their practices, and presenting long-established figures to new audiences often with new work, new scholarship, and new insights.

He mounted dozens of exhibitions and authored, edited, and contributed to countless catalogs that document artworks and his critical writings and conversations with artists. In 1994, he was a poet living in Brooklyn when he co-founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art with Salah M. Hassan, Olu Oguibe, and Chika Okeke-Agulu. It continues to be published, sporadically, by Duke University Press. The first issue of 2019 is scheduled for release May 13, according to the press.

Julien, the British filmmaker and installation artist who participated in the 56th Venice Biennale, paid tribute to Enwezor on Instagram. He said: “He created a revolution in curating contemporary Art! Such a great [loss]!! …Let’s move forward with his spirit and make sure his work continues to inspire.” Indeed, the late curator anticipated a new wave taking up the mantel.

“He created a revolution in curating contemporary Art! …Let’s move forward with his spirit and make sure his work continues to inspire.” — Isaac Julien

“A new generation of curators and museum professionals with different fields of knowledge is emerging,” Enwezor said in a 2017 interview.

“…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.” CT

 

FIND MORE In addition to the statement on Instagram, the Haus der Kunst museum posted a lengthier statement about the passing of Okwui Enwezor on its website

 

BOOKSHELF
Okwui Enwezor documented his work with powerful volumes. The co-author of “Contemporary African Art Since 1980,” Enwezor has edited a slew of exhibition catalogs and penned scholarly essays for many more. “All the World’s Futures: 56 International Art Exhibition” documents the 2015 Venice Biennale. Recent volumes also include “Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography and Video Art from the Walther Collection,” “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” and “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi.” In addition, Enwezor is among the contributors to “Jason Moran,” the first publication to explore in-depth the practice of the pianist and composer cum visual artist. The catalog accompanies Moran’s first museum show.

 

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