At Large  March 7, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Curator Okwui Enwezor’s Lasting Legacy

Photo Andreas Gebert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Portrait of Okwui Enwezor

Okwui Enwezor (1963–2019) was so many things: a curator, an academic, a poet. But if you were to ask what was his biggest legacy, it would be that he brought African art history to the global stage. As his colleagues Chika Okeke and Salah Hassan put so eloquently in a foreword in Nka, Okwui, and the significance and impact of his work as a curator, critic, and scholar, became an idea, a research subject open to anyone invested in contemporary art. Enwezor’s work not only changed art history from Euro-centric to global-centric, but put African artists on the same playing field as their European and American contemporaries. 

Before Enwezor became a world-renowned curator, he was just a student, with an interest in art. Enwezor grew up in Nigeria, but moved to the US in 1982 to attend New Jersey City University, where he received his bachelors in political science. From there, he moved from the Bronx down to lower Manhattan, to perform poetry, attend gallery openings, and engage in the art world. It was during this time that Enwezor realized that African artists, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, had almost no exposure in the commercial art world.

Princeton

Okwui Enwezor, Contemporary African Art Since 1980, cover image

In 1994, Enwezor started Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, in an effort to overturn the entrenched viewing and perceptions of what contemporary African art is. The magazine sought to advocate for art rooted in Africa, but in a global scope. The name, Nka, is taken from the Ibgo word for art, or creation, as well as the Basaa word for discourse. Today, almost thirty years later, the journal is still producing new scholarship and articles on African artists, putting them in a more global context. 

As a curator, Enwezor was so successful because he understood that by curating an exhibition, he was essentially creating an argument, a brief in what he called his ‘change agenda.’ The act of curating was two-fold: Enwezor was rewriting existing art-critical canons, while also introducing a radical rethinking of the role that all artists and art can inhabit in shaping social and political ideas. In this way, Enwezor’s exhibitions were meant to become a public forum, an allegorical way of representing and affirming the politics of everyday life. He believed that art had a role in responding to the messy and precarious world that it inhabits. Not only that, but art had a responsibility to address the political, cultural, social, and historical. And if it didn’t preclude such realities or failed to address the future, he wouldn’t engage with it. Therefore, his exhibitions were typified by weighty themes and strong statements from non-Western artists, as well as by contributions from writers, critics, filmmakers, and performance artists.

Courtesy Guggenheim Museum

Install image, In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present,

 

Back in the 90s, Nka’s creation led the Guggenheim to invite Enwezor, then a budding curator and critic, to be a co-curator of a new exhibition of African art. In 1996, Enwezor presented In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present, one of the first museum exhibitions to present imagery from Africa by Africans themselves, putting contemporary art from Africa in the historical and political context of colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states.

Enwezor’s hope with this exhibition, which was set beyond the stereotypes of Western ethnography, was to bring light to a history, which had been largely confined to the private archives of the photographers, their families and their local commercial enterprises, in order to share it with audiences at the Guggenheim, in New York. And it put Enwezor on the map. In/Sight coincided with the rise on the international stage of several African artists whose work is now considered canonical, including Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, Samuel Fosso, and David Goldblatt, all of whom Enwezor wrote about in later books.

Courtesy Wiki Art

Okwui Enwezor, Kassel 2002. Poster of the Oliver Mark exhibition Portraits, Musée de la photographie, Mougins 2002.

Okwui Enwezor went on to curate other landmark exhibitions, including Documenta in 1998, when he was just thirty-four years old. In his edition of Documenta, Enwezor featured 117 artists, where Europeans, Americans, Africans, Latin Americans, and Asian artists all had equal exposure. He also curated the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, 2002 Documenta 11, 2008 Gwangju Biennale, 2015 Venice Biennale, and exhibitions at various major art museums around the world.

Before Enwezor, the art world was Euro and Western-centric. Enwezor came from a very different place both geographically and intellectually than most of his curatorial peers, and had the ability to change how we perceive and identify African art. Far from being intimidated by his lack of traditional curatorial credentials, Enwezor was emboldened by it. Enwezor completely changed the art world because he dealt with misrepresentations of history by giving marginalized artists a voice. Enwezor’s own history and experience of globalization helped to create the basis for In/Sight and for the rest of his career.

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