Articles and Features

Okwui Enwezor: How the Nigerian Curator Remapped the Art World

Okwui Enwezor. Courtesy of Haus der Kunst.

By Adam Hencz

“The present political moment is a reminder of why art cannot be isolated from the everyday experience.”

Okwui Enwezor

On April 29, 2021 documenta archiv launched Platform6, a virtual platform created in honour of the peerless and charismatic Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor. The evolving online project is intended to provide a platform to explore the influential documenta11 exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor in 2002 and the continuing relevance of questions raised at the time.

Okwui Enwezor was the first non-European art director of documenta—the one he curated was the first documenta of the new millennium and has also been described as the first truly global, postcolonial edition. Considering art as an expression of social change, Enwezor always put this theory into practice in his curatorial work, carrying discourses about truth, globalisation, forms of collectivity and solidarity.

Enwezor was a dedicated writer, educator and researcher, delving deep into the histories and theories that undergirded his carefully curated exhibitions. In addition to documenta, he curated the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale, making him the only person to curate both the Biennale and documenta. Yet Enwezor also curated shows from numerous solo exhibitions for figures such as the South African photographer David Goldblatt and the American sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney, to major influential surveys like In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to Present at Guggenheim Museum in 1996. It was largely because of the latter, that artists like Samuel Fosso, Santu Mofokeng, Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode rose to fame in the West.

Installation view of In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present exhibition in 1996.
Installation view of In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present exhibition in 1996.

As adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography in New York, he organised Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, a 2013 show that extensively examined the legacy of the apartheid system and how it penetrated even the most mundane aspects of social existence in South Africa. For most of the past decade, however, Enwezor made his home in Munich as director of the city’s Haus der Kunst where he concentrated on monographic solo exhibitions: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hanne Darboven and Frank Bowling among the artists to be given run of the vast museum.

Enwezor, however, would have never expected to play a significant role in art history. “I never really set out to be a curator,” he told the New York Times in 2002. Born in 1963, in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon, Envezor lived through war and resettlement during the Biafran war of 1967-70, when he and his family were forced to move dozens of times, settling at last in the eastern city of Enugu. He began his university career in Nigeria before moving to the United States in 1982, living in the Bronx and enrolling at what is now New Jersey City University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Okwui Enwezor at the exhibition The Short Century in Berlin, 17 May 2001. © Photo: Haupt & Binder, Universes in Universe.
Okwui Enwezor at the exhibition The Short Century in Berlin, 17 May 2001. © Photo: Haupt & Binder, Universes in Universe.

“Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of a paralyzing inferiority complex,” he told the Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2013. “What was apparent was that most Americans I knew and met were actually not worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society,” he said. “And when this became clear, I saw no reason why I could not have an opinion or a point of view.” After graduating, he moved to downtown Manhattan, where he performed poetry at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, attended gallery openings and danced at clubs like the Palladium and the Roxy. Frustrated at the provincialism of the New York art scene, Enwezor started to write art criticism, eventually founding Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art with Salah M. Hassan, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Olu Oguibe in 1994. This publication, which remains massively influential, allowed Enwezor to organise shows for major institutions and to be recognised as one of the foremost ambassadors of contemporary African.

documenta11

His 2002 edition of Documenta stands as a major achievement both in his career and recent art history. Though earlier shows like Magiciens de la Terre (Paris, 1989) had begun to tell a worldwide story of art, the 2002 Documenta was a testament to how widely Enwezor was enlarging art world horizons and made the then-radical move of emphasizing artists from outside Europe and the United States. After the rise of neoliberalism in the ’90s had globalised the art market, Enwezor globalised art history and produced the festival’s first truly postcolonial edition.

In the run-up to the exhibition, Enwezor and his curatorial team had organised four platforms that aimed “to describe the location of culture and its interfaces with other complex global knowledge systems.” These platforms focused on current political, social, and artistic topics like democracy, truth and reconciliation, creolization and urbanism of post-colonial African cities. Documenta11 in Kassel from June to September 2002 then functioned as the fifth platform, which opened up to global themes in a unique way and is considered the first exhibition of its kind to focus on decidedly non-European and postcolonial perspectives. Okwui Enwezor has been regarded as the initiator and ambassador of this internationalization since then.

Okwui Enwezor. Photo credit: Maximilian Geuter.
Photo credit: Maximilian Geuter.

The influence of Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial work remains invaluable to the art world today. Some of his last projects have recently been completed. From February 17 to June 6, 2021, The New Museum in New York ran one of the final shows originally conceived and organised by Enwezor, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, an exhibition focused on “black grief and white grievance,” according to the exhibition team. The show was completed and presented with curatorial support from advisors of the museum. Also in 2021, Nka will devote a special issue to Enwezor, and in 2022, under the aegis of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates will organise an edition curated with Enwezor’s proposed theme as its basis.

Relevant sources to learn more

Visit Platform6, a virtual platform created in honor of Okwui Enwezor.
Read about 10 Influential Curators Shaping the Art World Today.
Visit the official archive of documenta11 or read our feature on the most recent documenta in 2017.