Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019)

 

THE RANKS OF BLACK CURATORS in the art world, while expanding, are relatively thin. Nearly every one has a connection to Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), whether they were close with him or worked with him, or only of knew him and his work. Enwezor, the renowned curator and critic, died March 15. The former artistic director of Haus der Kunst in Munich (2011-2008), served as artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. His rise, record, and reach are a powerful model for what is possible in the field, particularly for black men. In the wake of Enwezor’s passing, curators from around the world, from a variety of backgrounds, expressed their regard for his example, shared personal memories, and cited his influence:

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art is joining the Museum of Modern Art in New York in July, where he will be a curator in the painting and sculpture department. He provided a statement to Culture Type via email.

Nzewi said: “Okwui Enwezor’s passing is really a massive blow for his family, friends, numerous admirers, and the entire art world. He was a towering figure who provided an expanded horizon of the world using the exhibition as a platform for engaged politics. Through his trailblazing efforts, remarkable intellect, and focused activism, he paved the way for so many of us. He remained active and engaged to the very end. He loved life and lived it earnestly. We all wish to present the best examples of us. Okwui did that with his and will forever be a shining example to many.”

Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, is co-curating the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which opens in May. She wrote about the spectrum of Enwezor’s talents and attributes on Instagram.

Hockley said: “without okwui, there would be no us. every exhibition, every catalogue, every essay, every witty comment, every incisive critique, every word of encouragement, every burst of color and laughter and joie de vivre, every dashing suit, everything. what a life. what an unparalleled mind and fierce vision and inspiring example of what this field and profession and world can be when we interrogate and tell all of our stories, especially our african and diaspora stories.”

Trevor Schoonmaker, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C., wrote eloquently about the impact of “Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art,” which Enwezor co-founded in 1994. On Instagram he called Nka a “game changer.”

Schoonmaker wrote in part: “That was the exact same moment that I entered grad school, focusing on contemporary African art, and Nka was a godsend. That is when I first met Okwui, talking to him about the creation of this exciting new journal and all that it would bring. The internet was just coming into existence, social media was decades away, and this work was not yet being taught in Universities. Nka was the original access, and then the flood of Okwui’s exhibitions to come. It is hard to imagine today just how much this work was needed, considering how quickly the art world landscape has changed, but it’s also a reminder of how young the field is and how much work there still is to do. Thank you Okwui for your groundbreaking curatorial work. You are deeply missed.”

“Nka was a godsend. That is when I first met Okwui, talking to him about the creation of this exciting new journal and all that it would bring. The internet was just coming into existence, social media was decades away, and this work was not yet being taught in Universities. Nka was the original access, and then the flood of Okwui’s exhibitions to come.”
— Trevor Schoonmaker

Koyo Kouoh, was recently named executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, South Africa. She founded RAW Material Company in Dakar, Senegal, which supports artists and curators with exhibition space, residencies, education, and public programs. On Instagram, Raw Material posted images showcasing Enwezor’s major projects focused on African contemporary art and used his full Igbo name to honor him: “Farewell Lord Emanuel …Okuchukwu Emanuel Enwezor 1963-2019 …any word is too light to describe who you are and what you gave.”

Toronto art collector and curator of The Wedge Collection, Kenneth Montague shared fond memories of Enwezor. On Instagram, he said: “Back in the early 90s I remember buying a copy of aRUDE magazine (with all its wonderful style), followed by an issue of NKA (with all its wonderful substance)—and loved that he was linked to both. At his memorable DOCUMENTA11 in 2002, I recall that we ran into each other on the quiet streets of Kassel, Germany late in the night, post-opening party, both of us alone and wandering around looking for some decent food. Of course we ended up with having a serious conversation about art. He was a fearless and brilliant curator with a sharp suit and a sharper intellect.”

Julie Rodrigues Widholm is the director and chief curator at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago. She recently mounted “Barbara Jones-Hogu: Resist, Relate, Unite 1968-1975,” the first solo museum show of Barbara Jones-Hugo (1938-2017), a founding member of the artist collective AfriCOBRA.

Widholm cited Enwezor’s early influence on Instagram: “He is among the formative figures who shaped my thinking about the responsibilities and potential impact of a curator early in my career. I had the privilege of working on “The Short Century” a ground-breaking survey of contemporary artists from across Africa in 2001 @mcachicago. This exhibition filled in tremendous gaps in art history and was a dream project to work on for me, as it brought together my childhood in Mozambique, contemporary art and curatorial practice. Although I haven’t seen him for years, I can still hear his soft yet powerful voice. Thank you for modeling a new way of thinking, Okwui.”

An associate curator in the department of media and performance art at MoMA, Thomas Lax wrote about shadowing Enwezor in 2017, calling him “a gigantic intellect.” On Instagram, Lax said in part: “During our time together, I see his photographic memory up close as he recalls a particular sightline in Primitivism, which he saw at MoMA shortly after he moved to New York from southeastern Nigeria, and listen to his unending belief in artists as he remembers meeting the artist Carrie Mae Weems and together, when they started hanging out with photographer Ike Ude, with whom Okwui had gone to boarding school in Nigeria. More than any other word, he speaks of fearlessness, an idea he continually returns to: the fearlessness of ‘good ideas,’ of ‘committed practice,’ of ‘graciousness.'”

Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., emphasized Enwezor’s impact on the field. “Okwui Enwezor was a giant. A unique and singular talent who re-mapped our discipline, redefining its scope and ambition, recalibrating the quality of intellectual discourse and forcing the reconsideration of the moral landscape within which it all sits,” Casely-Hayford said in an email statement. “And as everyone who knew him will tell you, he did so with profound kindness, sensitivity and humility. We will miss him.”

Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, was succinct on Instagram. He said: “Thank you brother.” CT

 
 
 
 

 
 

 

View this post on Instagram

Okwui Enwezor with Glenn Ligon during the week in 2017 when I “shadowed” Okwui, a gigantic intellect whose encyclopedic breadth and commitment to going deep are incommensurable with the verb to shadow. During our time together, I see his photographic memory up close as he recalls a particular sightline in Primitivism, which he saw at MoMA shortly after he moved to New York from southeastern Nigeria, and listen to his unending belief in artists as he remembers meeting the artist Carrie Mae Weems and together, when they started hanging out with photographer Ike Ude, with whom Okwui had gone to boarding school in Nigeria. More than any other word, he speaks of fearlessness, an idea he continually returns to: the fearlessness of “good ideas,” of “committed practice,” of “graciousness” and of “building relationships.” During this time, Okwui was in the middle of a lot. “Postwar,” an epic show that aimed to rewrite the history of art since the wars of the middle 20th century, was on view with colleagues in town from the around the world. Okwui was emphatically present but also onto the next, reading Fanon in preparation for the second iteration of this exhibition trilogy, Postcolonial. He was rereading the poetry of Derek Walcott, who had passed the previous week, and preparing for an upcoming lecture series at Harvard titled “Grief and Grievance” about Arthur Jafa. Despite being sick then, and in what was perhaps his most unabashedly proud moment, he smiled, extending out his hands to tell me about his daughter who had just accepted a place at university ready to pursue her degree in philosophy. “There was no one to open the door for me; there were no doors.”

A post shared by Thomas J. Lax (@thomaslax) on

 

View this post on Instagram

Very sad to wake up to this news today. A brilliant, pioneering curator, tracing Okwui’s influence and impact really must begin in 1994/95 when he founded “Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art” with Olu Oguibe, Salah Hassan and Chika Okeke. Founded because contemporary African art was not yet taken seriously and contemporary African art history had not yet been written, that journal was the initial game changer. That was the exact same moment that I entered grad school, focusing on contemporary African art, and Nka was a godsend. That is when I first met Okwui, talking to him about the creation of this exciting new journal and all that it would bring. The internet was just coming into existence, social media was decades away, and this work was not yet being taught in Universities. Nka was the original access, and then the flood of Okwui’s exhibitions to come. It is hard to imagine today just how much this work was needed, considering how quickly the art world landscape has changed, but it’s also a reminder of how young the field is and how much work there still is to do. Thank you Okwui for your groundbreaking curatorial work. You are deeply missed. RIP Okwui Enwezor. This photo from 2017, Haus der Kunst, Munich. #okwuienwezor #nkajournal

A post shared by Trevor Schoonmaker (@toschoon) on

 
 

View this post on Instagram

With my old friend and lifelong inspiration Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019). Back in the early 90s I remember buying a copy of aRUDE magazine (with all its wonderful style), followed by an issue of NKA (with all its wonderful substance) – and loved that he was linked to both. At his memorable DOCUMENTA11 in 2002, I recall that we ran into each other on the quiet streets of Kassel, Germany late in the night, post-opening party, both of us alone and wandering around looking for some decent food. Of course we ended up with having a serious conversation about art. He was a fearless and brilliant curator with a sharp suit and a sharper intellect. I loved him. RIP Okwui. Slide 1. At Okwui’s 2015 Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures.. 2. At the 2007 Venice Biennale.. 3. Chez Lorna Simpson in 2005. #okwuienwezor #africanart #documentakassel #venicebiennale #gonetoosoon

A post shared by Kenneth Montague (@drkmontague) on

 

View this post on Instagram

In memory of Okwui Enwezor, visionary curator, art critic, educator, museum director, poet, writer. I remember our very first conversation in 1996 when Okwui prepared the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale which was such a seminal statement for a polycentric art world. From the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale to the Short Century to Documenta 11 to the 7th Gwangju Biennale to the Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo to the 2015 Venice Biennale to Postwar at the Haus der Kunst: Okwui's extraordinary large scale exhibitions always built bridges, always questioned established and seemingly accepted art histories and never illustrated previously established findings but functioned as laboratories. With all of these shows Okwui multiplied the number of worlds. To quote Edouard Glissant his shows were never a recapitulation of something which existed in an obvious way but the quest for something we don’t know yet. Okwui’s fearless exhibitions were never about a synthesis which would standardise but a network of interrelationships opening many perspectives. #okwuienwezor

A post shared by Hans Ulrich Obrist (@hansulrichobrist) on

 

FIND MORE tributes to Okwui Enwezor here and here

 

TOP IMAGE: Okwui Enwezor | Photo via Phaidon

 

Updated (3/19/19): A statement from Gus Casely-Hayford was added.

 

BOOKSHELF
The co-author of “Contemporary African Art Since 1980,” Okwui Enwezor has edited several exhibition catalogs and penned scholarly essays for many more. The selection includes “All the World’s Futures: 56 International Art Exhibition,” which documents his 2015 Venice Biennale. Other volumes also include “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” and “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi.” Enwezor is also 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 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for your support.