Okwui Enwezor has left us. He died of cancer on the 15th March this year in Munich, where he had been, until recent months, director of the Haus der Kunst. His departure at the early age of 55 is almost unthinkable and infinitely sad to contemplate. He was a visionary curator with an unparalleled understanding of the depth and sweep of African – and global – art history and its contemporary practitioners. He had a sense of exactly how all the disparate and complex histories fitted into and influenced international art practice and discourse. His curatorial and art historical achievements have radically expanded the boundaries of artistic endeavour.
In person, Okwui was a stylish, gracious man, with an easy laugh and an insatiable curiosity. He had a way of listening which seldom failed to elicit respect and admiration. Received information would be considered, reflected upon, and given back, placed swiftly and fluidly within a new, expanded framework.
It was an honour and a privilege to have known him for more than twenty years, and our meetings have been here in Cape Town on a number of occasions, but also in Dakar, Chicago, Venice, Bern, London and New York.
Okwui was peripatetic, and after his early successes, in demand everywhere.
The first time we lunched together was in the Obz Cafe, Cape Town, along with Ashraf Jamal, my co-author on the newly published Art in South Africa: the future present. It must have been the beginning of 1997, or perhaps even late 1996, and Okwui had recently been appointed artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, scheduled to open in September 1997. I had heard news of the young New York based Nigerian curator: that he was beginning to make his mark, and had curated a show for the NYC Guggenheim entitled ‘In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present’ an exhibition which moved beyond the ethnographic and exotic images taken by Westerners in favour of work by African photographers. I also knew that two years before that, together with his fellow Nigerian curator, Chika Okeke-Agula, the art historian Salah Hassan and the artist Olu Oguibe, he had launched a magazine entitled Nka, specifically to cover contemporary African art. I was excited to meet Okwui and to hear his plans for the upcoming Biennale.
The 1st Johannesburg Biennale had been held in 1995, and had followed the biennale model of national pavilions, or exhibitions, but Okwui explained over lunch that he had decided on a different approach for his biennale. His theme of Trade Routes: History and Geography explored the hybridity of the contemporary art world, and as he was to write in his catalogue essay, ‘owes something to the restless contingent histories of people who in the last half of the twentieth century have gathered at the edge of events, under a common heading called globalisation’. Thus, instead of national pavilions, Okwui took a global approach, and appointed a roster of like-minded curators to bring to Johannesburg – and to Cape Town – one of the most exciting series of exhibitions ever to be seen in this country. The artists he brought if not already well known, were to rise to the top of their fields in the next twenty years including Sophie Calle, Shirin Neshat, Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, Carrie Mae Weems, Cildo Mereiles, Stan Douglas, Wangechi Mutu, David Hammons, Pascal Marthine Tayou, Hans Haacke and Sam Taylor-Wood.
Many South African artists were also part of the Biennale, to mention just a few, Patrick Mautloa, Penny Siopis, William Kentridge, Tracey Rose, Kendell Geers, Santu Mofokeng, Kay Hassan, Moshekwa Langa, and myself. ‘South African art is so formidable because South Africans have this passionate deep belief that there is no separation between the imagination and the reality of every day,’ Okwui has said.
Writing about that Johannesburg Biennale in Artforum in 1997, curator Dan Cameron was to comment, ‘It’s a profound relief to be able to report that this is the artistic payoff that everyone who’s been traipsing the globe this year has been waiting for […] the first global exhibition to transform the promise of postcolonial theory into a tangible reality, thereby almost completely exorcising the ghost of 1989’s “Magiciens de la Terre” (Pompidou Centre) from the curatorial lexicon.’
The accolades which followed the success of the Johannesburg Biennale were to lead to a second curatorial invitation to Enwezor: this time, to be the artistic director of the 2002 edition of the world’s most prestigious exhibition: Documenta, held in Kassel, Germany, once every five years. It was the first time the position had gone to an African curator.
Speaking at a gala dinner in New York on November 1, 2016, hosted by Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, and given to honour him, Okwui reflected on the importance of his 1997 curatorial success, and ‘that very auspicious beginning as a 32 year old being appointed artistic director of the Johannesburg Biennale and three years later as a 35 year old, being appointed artistic director of Documenta.
‘South Africa gave me the opportunity for the very first time in my career to produce something in Africa, something that was deep, important, and in many ways enabled me to travel the world. And without South Africa I would not be standing on this stage and that is why I am so indebted to South Africa’.
At that dinner, Okwui, who was born Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor on Oct. 23, 1963, in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon, also spoke about his early years in New York.
‘I came (to New York) simply because it was the thing to do, like many young people who came from Nigeria, or from different parts of West Africa in the 1980s. It was about being at home in the world. It was not in any sense about arriving at a place in which you transform yourself. You wanted to be a contributor to that transformation. So I fell into the art world by accident. And it was a very happy accident.
‘I went into the art world because I wanted to construct and place myself, to create an emotional geography and an intellectual and cultural biography.
But my journey is a journey that is not individual. It is a collective journey of all the people in our field. And when I step into one of my favourite museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, it reaffirms the fact, of the reason why I started here in the art world. And that is, it is not a museum of art. It is a museum of the human imagination. And I was first and foremost interested in the human imagination’.
Following the success of the Johannesburg Biennale, Enwezor’s next major curatorial coup was the highly lauded The Short Century, Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945- 1994, a landmark exhibition of work and documentation by African, Asian and Oceanic artists which challenged the appropriation of modernism by the west.
‘I give you one reason why my commitment to contemporary art was really palpable. I wanted to understand why in African art the representations which had been realistic up until the 16th and 17th century suddenly shifted I wanted to understand that. That what we call primitive shifted from very representational and became completely abstract. The destruction of the picture. And that for me was so incredible, giving me confidence, so that I could look at Picasso, and say, “You’re just only beginning.” It’s really true.’
In 2013, Enwezor became artistic director of the Venice Biennale, taking as his overarching theme, All the World’s Futures, selecting the work of 136 artists from 53 countries, almost two thirds of whom had never shown on a Biennale before. Criticised by some as too dense and too political, lauded by the most respected reviewers, the Biennale highlighted the precarious situation of artists and their communities across the world, and shifted the boundaries of contemporary art history.
With all that Okwui had going on at any one moment, it was hardly surprising that it was difficult to get his attention. Emails would sometimes go unanswered for some time, but one knew he had read them, and he might pick up the phone and call to announce an imminent arrival, or, just when a deadline was about to hit, send that email.
Thus he would grant a Venice interview to ArtThrob, the online journal which had launched in August 1997 with a preview of the upcoming 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, or write an essay for my book, South African Art Now (2009) or give up time to spend two days in Switzerland with me and the young fellows of the Sommerakademie of the Paul Klee Sentrum in Bern in 2011, the year I was guest curator.
Our last meal together was a coffee shop breakfast the morning after the Performa Gala dinner in November 2016. It was known that he had cancer, but he looked the same as ever, and talked with enthusiasm about the night before, and how much he had enjoyed Athi Patra-Ruga’s musical procession into the dinner, and how honoured he had felt by the occasion, accompanied as he was by his partner, Louise Neri. He talked about the imminent election, and how excited his daughter was about the prospect of a woman president of the United States. Little did we know.
At Okwui’s suggestion, we did a final project together in the spring of 2017, an interview style essay for the catalogue of the Fondation Louis Vuitton exhibition Being There, conducted by Skype and by email. I had hoped to see Okwui at the opening of the exhibition in Paris, but apparently he was not well enough to leave Munich. His absence cast a shadow over proceedings
When the sad news came last month, the tributes started to pour in. He was not only a giant in the art world, but held in deep affection by hundreds who had worked with him over the years, and there is no one who can fill his shoes. As RoseLee Goldberg was to text me, ‘Even though we knew it was coming, the finality was heart breaking. Such a brilliant mind and generous heart. He takes libraries with him.’