In a wide-ranging interview in New York in November, the celebrated curator Okwui Enwezor discusses the Perfoma event at which he was the honoree, the extraordinary ’90s, the importance of Africa playing the role of host to the art world, and his interest in the young people in Africa.
Sue Williamson: Last night, at a Performa gala dinner, you were honoured for your enormous contribution, to not only the African art world but also to the international art world.
Almost twenty years ago, in August 1997, ArtThrob went online with our very first issue announcing the forthcoming 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, under your directorship. I don’t think I’m going too far when I say I think that that Biennale, with its theme of Trade Routes and Geography, and the artists and curators you brought to Johannesburg was a turning point in the international reception of contemporary African art. And from what you said last night, you recognised that too. And I wonder if you’d just like to comment on that.
Okwui Enwezor: Well, you know Sue, first, thanks for giving me the opportunity to reflect on what for me has been a collective historical shift. And I think this collective historical shift cannot be appreciated without the full context of the things that you’ve mentioned – the relationship between contemporary African art and international contemporary art. In a moment of what was undeniably an amazing moment of historical rupture in the world, in which Africa was at the very centre, in relation to South Africa. Considering the very rousing end of the 20th Century with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union, the end of Apartheid, last night was for me an opportunity to think about the meaning of this particular moment, and how fortunate that I especially have been, as a witness to that shift. Not just as a participant, but as a witness to that shift.
It could not have been possible without South Africa. The confluence of the end of Apartheid, this moment of incredible reexamination of the geography, the cultural geography, of Africa and the kind of space of intellectual and cultural generosity that that created was incredibly important. And, it is really safe to say that, without the Johannesburg Biennale my career as a curator would look very different. Absolutely.
And the Johannesburg Biennale was doubly meaningful because it was the first opportunity I had to truly work and do something significant on the African continent. And for me to really launch my international career on a very high level, from the African continent – it’s something that’s just incredibly amazing. That I was recommended by the continent of my birth, and not the other way around.
But it was in many ways also not just the opportunity to work in South Africa, but that I came to South Africa at a moment when a lot of good art was being made. A lot of good art – by artists of every stripe – being made in South Africa.
So, RoseLee’s [Goldberg] invitation for me to be an honoree on what I would call the 20th anniversary of my arrival to South Africa, is just so powerful and overwhelming, I must say.
Above: Athi-Patra Ruga’s Performa parade.
OE: There are not that many contexts can match what was happening in South Africa in the ’90s in terms of artistic rejuvenation. And of course, laying the groundwork. It’s been relentless since: new artists, younger, there’s now almost two generations of artists who have come out of that from the groundwork that artists of your generation laid.
So for me that’s very important, and that’s why this confluence of ArtThrob and of the Johannesburg Biennale is important, because it was precisely about creating that platform to think the work, to see the work, and to continue to think the work and to continue to see the work. And it’s a pity that the Johannesburg Biennale did not continue but I think even in its very short history, it left a very powerful legacy.
SW: It left a very powerful legacy and it’s been a source of regret that it has never managed to get itself together again.
SW: Partly because of course there was no understanding from the State of how important it was.
OE: Yeah, but nevertheless, I would say that it is okay, because in spite of that, the artists in South Africa and their supporters have made sure that there is a continuous growth in terms of the contribution of the arts, to the making, to the progress as it were, of South African democracy, of South African social, cultural context. So, in a sense it’s a loss, but it’s not a debilitating loss.
SW: Well, I think that its heritage has been incredibly important. I don’t think anybody of the generation who went to those biennales forgets what it meant, and of course now you have the rise of the art fairs and it’s amazing how both young artists and older artists are penetrating the world. Kemang [Wa Lehulere] is Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year, for instance and has just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago.
OE: It was really for me incredible to sit at that table last night, to see William Kentridge projected there, there’s Kemang, there’s Zanele [Muholi], there’s yourself, there’s Candice [Breitz], and there’s Athi-Patra Ruga – it sent a chill up my body when the procession entered, you know? It’s, it’s kind of this imaginary homecoming to hear that sound, that it’s so specific you know it’s so specific, so amazing, and that RoseLee had this incredible sense of occasion, you know? To bring all of these things together, and to include me in it is a great privilege. So I was really quite moved last night.
So Sue, when I think of these past 20 years, these two decades that have transpired, when we try to put them in the context of the rousing end of the 20th century, I think we’re still reaping the complex bequeathment of that rousing end.
OE: And the South African body politic now might not be what we had all hoped for, but nevertheless it is an engaged body politic.
SW: It is engaged, you know, I listen to talk radio every day on my way to the studio and I’m just astonished by the level of discourse from just ordinary people phoning in and commenting.
SW: And I mean yes, Zuma and his cronies are kind of wedged in there, but it’s not going to last, they’ll be out. I think the feeling is always ‘well, we got through Apartheid, we’ll get through this too’. We’ll get to the other side of this, and there’ll be a fairer dispensation. I hope so.
OE: Yeah, well Zuma and co have been discredited, in a sense, but I think he’s part of the coming to maturity of South Africa and there is an incredible resilience of the political and social context, however precarious it might seem at times. And there is what is happening in the universities with the protests.
SW: Especially in the last year. The young people are now really fed up. You see headlines like ’Old People, Your Advice Sucks’. The younger generation feel their parents sold out.
OE: What do we do with that, how do we create another space of conversation around that.
Lately I’ve been pondering, thinking, talking to myself about what can one do with the broad changes that are taking place in Africa coming from young people. How can one think of that from an artistic standpoint. You know #RhodesMustFall, or what’s going on in Nigeria, in Kenya. How can one really think the future, from the perspective of ‘now’? Not from the perspective from the past.
So it’s a very fascinating moment, and in many ways it’s also very exciting that young people are finding their voice and articulating these passions, in a clear way.
SW: Yes absolutely.
And on a different subject, there seems to be quite an ‘Africa moment’ at present in Europe. Have you noticed this too? In Britain they’re having this show at the British Museum at the moment on South African art, and next year in France there are a number of exhibitions planned.
OE: Well, you know it’s a very interesting thing because, you know, the focus on Africa in many ways is a double-edged sword.
SW: Exactly – and it worries me a little bit.
OE: [laughs] It’s a double-edged sword, because the question is ‘to what end’? I think that what we must really be thinking very seriously about in Africa is how to build and sustain institutions. It is not possible for any progress to be made without sustainable institutions – not just one but multiple institutions, whether that is for art or for literature. How do we really build and engage the public, and the public sphere?
SW: That is so important.
OE: Because of the absence of a robust public sphere – because South Africa is definitely different from other African countries – but without a robust public sphere, how can Africa be meaningful? And I think, of course, it’s fantastic that Africa is being celebrated and so on, but I’m also aware of, you know, the crisis and the catastrophe on the high seas of which no African country has stepped forward to say something about, or to really bring to world recognition that they are interested in finding a solution to these crises, to this catastrophe on the high seas. So I am deeply pessimistic that the celebration of Africa in Europe really has ultimate value for the complexity of the situation that Africans face, within Africa and in the rest of the world as such.
So that is not to say that I think the situation is hopeless. It is not hopeless, but I think that we need not only just institutions, we need thriving and sustainable institutions. It’s not just being guests, we have to be hosts as well. We have to play a role. If we want international contemporary art, we have to host it. And that is why the Johannesburg Biennale was so important.
OE: You know, because of that role of being a host, South Africa was a guest throughout the world in the ’90s, as you very well know, and the early 2000s. But it was a host through these two biennales, and that is the pity of what has happened, that the exchange between the local, the national, and the international was truncated by the demise of these two signature exhibitions that happened in ’95 and ’97.
OE: So we have to really link the idea of building institutions, thriving sustainable institutions, with our task and role of being hosts as well. We cannot be endlessly the guests, and I think that is the challenge that we face.
I think that it’s wonderful that Europe, you know, is paying attention to Africa, but to what degree can we also pay attention to those other parts of the world in our own context? To really exhibit, you know, that the trade route is two ways. That it’s a flow of ideas going back and forth, and not just simply only working on one direction.
SW: Well I’m hoping that the new Zeitz MOCAA which opens in September next year is going to start to play that role…
OE: You think so?
SW: I don’t know, I hope so.
OE: [laughs] Well the way they’ve managed so far, I’m very sceptical. I don’t know the people, I’ve not seen the work. But, if you really want to build something that is sustainable and intellectually honest you can’t do it without the requisite intellectual architecture. You just can’t, and it’s not just for the sake of being inclusive. You can’t do it by forgoing the fact that there are these questions that have to be asked in the context of the country.
People tend to take advantage of the fact that South Africa is an easy entry point. Because it is the one place in Africa that is so much more easily recognisable for them as Europe, or it kind of matches what they expect in Europe. And you know I think that it’s great that this is being done, but I really have not seen a statement of intent that tells me that the Zeitz staff is intellectually adventurous. [laughs]
SW: We’re waiting for that…
OE: You know and we’ll have to wait and see, but in any case I do hope that the question of hosts, of being a host, is something that we in the African continent can begin to take on. And I’m really really very committed to this idea.
Because it’s really about exchange, and that’s what we’re talking about with the Johannesburg Biennale – because it was a context of being a host. And the Biennale did something formidable in this regard.
SW: And the people who were involved in it. I saw Thomas Hirschhorn was the curator this year at the Paul Klee Sommerakademie, and he was saying how much it had mean to him.
OE: Yeah, yeah absolutely. You know people like Thomas Hirschhorn, they showed very early in this context. It probably was the first biennale that he participated in, in ’95. So, think about all of this, this different stuff, and that for me is really where the importance of the Biennale lies. Being this network, or constellation, or context, of meaning that is not only just simply local but also international.
SW: Absolutely. In one sense – talking about South Africa’s cultural trip – you know South Africa’s pavilion up until now at the Venice Biennale has been somewhat problematic with these ‘one of everything’ sort of shows. But I heard yesterday from Candice that she and Mohau [Modisakeng] are the two artists who have been selected for the South African Pavilion for 2017.
OE: Oh that’s fantastic!
SW: And I’m so excited. I think it’s a very interesting combination, and the fact that they’re going to restrict it to a strong showing from two strong artists. And it’s such a nice balance.
OE: Fantastic, fantastic.
SW: And the curators are Lucy MacGarry assisted by Musha Nehuleni. So I’m really pleased and it think its a big step forward for our Department of Arts and Culture that they’ve actually, finally, listened to the requests please not to make these crammed shows and insist on so many artists. So that’s very good news I think.
OE: No, that’s amazing. It’s important. But let’s look at it this way, one has to say also that the presence of South Africa in the Biennale, you know, with a permanent pavilion – despite what we might say about the shows – is a very important one. The fact is, that the South African Pavilion is there and that there’s a commitment somehow to secure this pavilion. Now, the important task is now to develop, and I think it’s moving in the right direction.
SW: Yeah, so that’s good. And Okwui what’s on your programme? What is the next big thing for you?
OE: You know, what is interesting me right now to be quite honest is this last point that I made about young people, and about how do we construct sustainable private institutions in Africa? I don’t know how, but it has been one of my preoccupations. How might one avoid the trap of obsolescence when funding dries up? How can we redirect our energy towards resuscitating our existing institutions, rather than just simply building new ones?
OE: An interest and ambition I have right now, is to devoting my time to thinking about how one might build thriving and sustainable institutions. It occurred to me that it’s really about trying not to reinvent the wheel you know, but make a common cause with the existing institutions and seeing how one can enter into dialogue with them. And certainly, in the course of exploring that through my own institution in Germany [the Haus der Kunst, Munich] and, you know, Germany is really playing an amazing role. There is funding, but it’s not to say a question of funding to give over there, I think we just have to find how to bring in natural resources to make sure that these things can grow. My interest now is really trying to build a concept for, you know, cultural endowments that will enable one to work with already existing institutions, to resuscitate them, you know, rather than simply building new institutions.
So if you take for example a place like Nigeria, or Senegal or Côte d’Ivoire…
OE: You know, the artists are never going to become, you know, to challenge their work if the art schools are no good. So I’m interested in curriculum reform. So these are the kind of things I’m interested in – they are more basic stuff than just another show. Obviously there are always shows that I’m going to do, I’ve just opened a very big exhibition three weeks ago called ‘Post War – Art between the Pacific and Atlantic, 1945 to 1965’, it’s an exhibition that looks at the last 20 years…
SW: Yes, you talked about that at Frieze London…
OE: Yeah, yeah, so the show has now opened and I think it looks amazing. So that’s the first of a trilogy of exhibitions – the next one is is called ‘Post Colonial’, or ‘Post Colonialism’, and we’re basically focussing on looking at situations of emancipation across the world from 1955 to 1980.
OE: Tracing the relationship between the Africa-Asia Conference (that’s the proper name) in 1955, to the Non-Aligned Conference in 1961, to the Tricontinental Conference in 1966 as the kind of leaping-off point of this. And then looking at the broader ramifications of the, the response to empire – not imperialism. We’re going to to look at it globally, ending in 1980, with, you know, ’79 Iran, and Afghanistan in 1980, the Soviet Union, and then we’re going to look also at Vietnam, we’re going to look at …
SW: A really global perspective…
OE: Precisely. So you know the point is really to rearticulate the post colonial, not from the point of view of purely decolonisation, which was more about the severing of the relationship between the colonial – or imperial – structures and national movements of self-determination. So now we’re really looking more precisely at the question of emancipation. Emancipation in response to empire, emancipation in response to dictatorships and so on. So whether we’re looking at Argentina, you know, Tropicália in Brazil, whether we are looking at May ’68… These ruptures…
SW: It’s an enormous scope, a blockbuster…
OE: Yeah [laughs] yeah so, that’s what the next show is, it’ll open in ’19. Next year, um, we’ll begin discussions for the last of the trilogy which is on ‘Post Communism’.
OE: So next year in October for the centennial of the Russian revolution, of the October Revolution we will be staging a big 4-day convergence (it’s not a symposium only). So there will be talks, lectures, recitals, readings and so on, sort of to look at the centennial of the Russian revolution which caused factors of communism, and also to look at the moments when intellectuals also disavowed communism – especially in the wake of the death of Stalin and the revelations that came with that…
SW: Gosh Okwui…
OE: [laughs] So that’s kind of on the more formal side of things that I’m working on. So next year kicks off you know… for the Post Colonialism project we are going to be doing a series of small meetings in different parts of the world; in Indonesia, in Ghana, in Egypt, in Cuba, in Serbia, in, you know, in Munich, in New Delhi, maybe, you know, South Africa… So 1980 is our cut-off point.
We’re now thinking of inviting a cartographer, to help us really plot a kind of geography of this.