Okwui Enwezor the Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator has died of cancer age 55. He lived in New York City and Munich. In 2016, he was ranked 28 in the Artlyst Power100 most influential people in the art world, just one year after he was appointed the director the Venice Biennale.
“He was an extraordinarily intelligent and insightful man who has opened many people’s eyes” – Glenn D. Lowry, director MoMa
Okwui Enwezor was born as the youngest son of an affluent family of Igbos in Awkuzu in Nigeria in 1963. In 1982, after a semester at the University of Nigeria, Enwezor moved to the Bronx at the age of 18. In 1987 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political sciences at the New Jersey City University.
When Enwezor graduated, he moved downtown and took up poetry. He performed at the Knitting Factory and the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. Enwezor’s study of poetry led him through language-based art forms like Conceptual Art to art criticism. Teaming up in 1993 with fellow African critics Chika Okeke-Agulu and Salah Hassan, he launched the triannual Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art from his Brooklyn apartment; “Nka” is an Igbo word that means art but also connotes to make, to create. He recruited scholars and artists such as Olu Oguibe to edit the inaugural issue and write for it.
After putting on a couple of small museum shows, Enwezor had his breakthrough in 1996 as a curator of In/sight, an exhibit of 30 African photographers at the Guggenheim Museum. In/sight was one of the first shows anywhere to put contemporary art from Africa in the historical and political context of colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states.
Enwezor was the director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. He also had the roles of adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography in New York City, and Joanne Cassulo Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. In 2013, Enwezor was appointed curator of the Venice Biennale 2015,making him the first African-born curator in the exhibition’s 120-year history.
One of the most charismatic figures in the panorama of contemporary global art, Enwezor ascended to the peak of curatorial practice with firm conviction and phenomenal drive, rewriting the ground rules and insisting on an inclusive global perspective for postwar visual arts. In 1994, in collaboration with Salah Hassan, Olu Oguibe, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, he founded NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, now published by Duke University Press. Following the groundbreaking exhibition “In/Sight” on African photography, co-curated with Octavio Zaya at the Guggenheim Museum of New York, he was appointed Artistic Director of the Second Johannesburg Biennial in 1996.
In 1998, Enwezor surprised the western art world by being appointed Artistic Director of the prestigious Documenta 11 – until then an exclusively European domain – and he is credited with being the only curator after Harald Szeeman to have directed both Documenta and the Venice Biennale. In addition to Venice and Johannesburg, he also curated the Seville and Kwangju Biennials (2006 and 2008 respectively) and the Paris Triennale in 2012.
A poet with a background in political science, Enwezor’s curatorial approach combined both practices in unique, unprecedented and newly imaginative ways. His ambitious exhibitions, which included “The Short Century” (2001), “Archive Fever” (2008), “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid” (2013), and “Postwar” (2016) have become cornerstones in the most recent history of art. While still struggling with the life-threatening disease that would eventually claim his life, Enwezor had embarked on a challenging exhibition project titled “Grief and Grievance,” pivoting on two public speeches: Barack Obama’s eulogy in 2015 for the Charleston victims of a white supremacist attack, and Donald Trump’s Gettysburg address, ten days after announcing his presidential race.
For Enwezor, art functioned as a tool to interpret, confront, and understand the social and political present and its historical context, but without abandoning the power of its aesthetic value. In less than three decades of curatorial practice he established a permanent and game-changing legacy – countless exhibitions, conferences, scholarly books and artist monographs, and new cultural initiatives, coupled with impactful contributions to juries, advisory bodies, and curatorial teams at arts institutions around the world – the lasting effects of which will be felt by artists and curators for many generations to come.
In addition to honorary doctorates at the University of Cape Town and Harvard University, Enwezor was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2014 and the Hessichen Kulturpreis in 2015, among many other prizes and awards.
Exactly one week before his death, the aptly titled “Triumphant Scale” – an extensive traveling exhibition of the great African artist El Anatsui, which Enwezor co-curated with Okeke-Agulu – opened at Haus der Kunst in Munich.
Enwezor is survived by his daughter Uchenna Enwezor, his mother Bernadette Enwezor, his sisters Rita Ogor Enwezor-Udorji, Maureen Enwezor, Francesca Enwezor-Onyia and Nkiru Enwezor-Onyanta, and his life partner Louise Neri.
Previously, Enwezor was the artistic director of the Documenta 11 in Germany (1998–2002), as the first non-European to hold the job.He also served as artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1996–97), the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporaneo de Sevilla, in Seville, Spain (2006), the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008), and the Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo (2012). He has also served as co-curator of the Echigo-Tsumari Sculpture Biennale in Japan; Cinco Continente: Biennale of Painting, Mexico City; and Stan Douglas: Le Detroit, Art Institute of Chicago.
Enwezor was named an adjunct curator at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1998. He has also curated numerous exhibitions in many other distinguished museums around the world, including Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity, The Walther Collection, Germany; Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, International Center of Photography; The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994, Villa Stuck, Munich, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and P.S.1 and Museum of Modern Art, New York; Century City, Tate Modern, London; Mirror’s Edge, Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Tramway, Glasgow, Castello di Rivoli, Torino; In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940–Present, Guggenheim Museum; Global Conceptualism, Queens Museum, New York, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, List Gallery at MIT, Cambridge; David Goldblatt: Fifty One Years, Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, AXA Gallery, New York, Palais des Beaux Art, Brussels, Lenbachhaus, Munich, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg, Witte de With, Rotterdam.
He organized The Rise and Fall of Apartheid for the International Center for Photography, New York, in 2012 and “Meeting Points 6”, a multidisciplinary exhibition and programs “which will take place in nine Middle East, North African and European cities, from Ramallah to Tangier to Berlin”, then at the Beirut Art Center in April 2011.
Enwezor served on numerous juries, advisory bodies, and curatorial teams including: the advisory team of Carnegie International in 1999; Venice Biennale; Hugo Boss Prize, Guggenheim Museum; Foto Press, Barcelona; Carnegie Prize; International Center for Photography Infinity Awards; Visible Award; Young Palestinian Artist Award, Ramallah; and the Cairo, Istanbul, Sharjah, and Shanghai Biennales. In 2004 he headed the jury for the Artes Mundi prize, an art award created to stimulate interest in contemporary art in Wales. In 2012, he chaired the jury for Vera list Center Prize for Art and Politics.
From 2005 to 2009, Enwezor was Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice President at San Francisco Art Institute. He held positions as Visiting Professor in art history at University of Pittsburgh; Columbia University, New York; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and University of Umea, Sweden. In the Spring of 2012, he served as Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor at Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
As a writer, critic, and editor, Enwezor has been a regular contributor to numerous exhibition catalogues, anthologies, and journals. He is founding editor and publisher of the critical art journal NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art established in 1994, and currently published by Duke University Press.
His writings have appeared in numerous journals, catalogues, books, and magazines including: Third Text, Documents, Texte zur Kunst, Grand Street, Parkett, Artforum, Frieze, Art Journal, Research in African Literatures, Index on Censorship, Engage, Glendora, and Atlantica. In 2008, German magazine 032c published a somewhat controversial interview with Enwezor, conducted by German novelist Joachim Bessing.
Among his books are Contemporary African Art Since 1980 (Bologna: Damiani, 2009) co-authored with Chika Okeke-Agulu, Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), Reading the Contemporary: African Art, from Theory to the Marketplace (MIT Press, Cambridge and INIVA, London) and Mega Exhibitions: Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form (Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich), Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, and The Unhomely: Phantom Scenes in Global Society. He is also the editor of a four-volume publication of Documenta 11 Platforms: Democracy Unrealized; Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation; Creolité and Creolization; Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos (Hatje Cantz, Verlag, Stuttgart).
Okwui Enwezor (23 October 1963 – 15 March 2019)