Life and time of Nigerian Curator, Okwui Enwezor

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Okwui Enwezor; Photo: Artnet News

Okwui Enwezor; Photo: Artnet News

The Art world was thrown into mourning on March 15, 2019 when Nigerian curator, art critic, writer and poet, Okwui Enwezor died at the age of 55 after battling cancer for years.

However, his life, aspiration and creativity have greatly influenced the art world, which was why in 2015, he became the first African-born curator to organize the Venice Biennale. He also became the first non-European curator to organize the German-based exhibition Documenta in 2002, according to Art News.

Okwui Enwezor was also the artistic director at The Haus Der Kunst from 2011 to 2018.

On 23 October, 1963, Enwezor  was born as the youngest son of an affluent family of Igbos in Awkuzu in Nigeria. 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 and Carl Hancock Rux 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.]

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 Biennial Internacional de Arte Contemporaneo de Sevilla, in Seville, Spain (2006),[13] the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008), and the Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo (2012). He 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 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,[15] 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,[16] 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, and Witte de With, Rotterdam.

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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 took 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 the Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor at Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

As a writer, critic, and editor, Enwezor was a regular contributor to numerous exhibition catalogues, anthologies, and journals. He was the 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, the 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).

In 2006, Enwezor received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism from the College Art Association. Enwezor was ranked 42 in ArtReview′s guide to the 100 most powerful figures in contemporary art: Power 100, 2010.

In June 2018 Enwezor signed a separation agreement with Munich Haus der Kunst partly because his battle with cancer took a more challenging turn.


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