Curator Okwui Enwezor, whose incisive, free-thinking, and ambitious exhibitions were essential in pushing the art world to embrace a global view of contemporary art and art history, has died. He had been battling cancer for years. Among the first to share news of his passing was the Venice Biennale, whose 56th edition he curated in 2015. He was 55.
Enwezor was the first African-born curator to organize the Venice 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 staged in 2002. That latter show, Documenta XI, defined his curatorial sensibilities: venturesome, unabashedly intellectual, and intent on rethinking how institutions operate.
In the run-up to the opening of Documenta in June of 2002, Enwezor presented what he termed platforms—conferences, seminars, and other projects—in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, Nigeria, and for the main exhibition he showcased artists from beyond Europe and the United States, which had historically dominated the affair.
Discussing his career with Melissa Chiu at the Asia Society in New York in 2014, he said, “When I started, I always had what I thought was a change agenda.”
“He was one of the leaders the, let’s call it, the free curatorial world, one of the people who believed in intelligence and scholarly research and passion and the power of the curatorial,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy, and curator of Documenta 13 in 2012, said by phone this morning.
Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, writing on Twitter, said that Enwezor “was a major force of contemporary culture. His achievement as curator of some of the most important global exhibitions of the last decade punctuated the emergence of the South as a global cultural movement.”
Enwezor was born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963, and grew up in Enugu. He moved to New York in 1982 and earned his undergraduate degree in political science from what is now New Jersey City University. He wrote poetry and, like so many in that field, found his way into art criticism. In the early 1990s, he began curating shows regularly, and in 1994, while based in Brooklyn, he co-founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.
Asked about that name in an interview with the Vitra Design Museum, Enwezor said he was “searching for a term that projected an aesthetic horizon, but would also constitute a forum of ideological resistance.” He explained that Nka, “in Igbo, the language I grew up with in Eastern Nigeria, means to create, to make, to invent. It also means art. Then in Basaa, a language in Cameroon, Nka means discourse. People oftentimes ask me, ‘When was the first time you went to a museum?’ As if a museum is the only space where one encounters art! Calling the magazine Nka was a way of disarming this particular notion.”
In 1996, Enwezor organized “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim Museum’s location in the SoHo section of Manhattan, featuring 30 artists, including canonical figures like Seydou Keïta, of Mali, and Samuel Fosso, of Nigeria. Max Kozloff, writing in Artforum, said that the show “broke ground here, offering practically all its subjects a U.S. debut” and Holland Cotter, in the New York Times, termed it a “mandatory stop.”
Soon after, he organized the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, which ran from 1996 to 1997, one in a string of the closely watched international exhibitions he would be picked to curate, a lineup that includes the 2008 Gwangju Biennale and the 2012 Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
In a 2014 profile in the Wall Street Journal, Enwezor said of his career, “There was nobody who quote-unquote opened the doors. The doors were resolutely shut. I’m as surprised as the next person about where I am.”
The influence of his approach has been profound, with many historically Eurocentric museums making efforts to collect and research the work of modern artists throughout the world. 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. “I want to be the person”—he cut himself off—”the backup singer for their solo acts.”