In this tribute, we recall the works and achievements of one of the most influential, global curators of contemporary art, Okwui Enwezor, who lost the battle to cancer on March 15, 2019. He was 55 years old.
Okwui Enwezor was not just any curator, he was the only African born curator to curate the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2015, and the documenta 2002. Throughout his career, the poet, writer, critic, publisher editor and curator, brought to the art world, a global perspective beyond the standard patterns and western narratives, to provide alternative ways to give voice to artists whose contributions were often overlooked.
His large scale exhibitions as seen in his 2017 exhibition ‘Post War: Art Between The Pacific and the Atlantic,’ 1945 – 1965, at Haus der Kunst, Berlin, Germany, (where he served as artistic director until his resignation last year) which included nearly 220 artists from 65 countries and his 2015 curated Venice Biennale which featured over 136 artists, was described by London’s Serpentine Galleries artistic director and curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, as “performative, experimental spaces – like laboratories.”
Before coming into his curatorial career, Enwezor, who moved to New York City at the age of 18 in 1982 for a higher education at the New Jersey City University, started out as a poet, with revolutionary art thinker. His break in curating came in 1996, as the organiser of the In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to Present, at the Guggenheim Museum.
A strong advocate for highlighting African art and diaspora art, he authored and co-authored art history books on Modern African and Contemporary African Art and co-founded an art magazine ‘NKA,’ with fellow Nigerian art historian, Prof Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Salah M. Hassan. ‘NKA’ today, is the defining source of African and Diasporic Art.
Proving his international repute, he curated the 1996 Johannesburg Biennale and the 2008 South Korea Gwangju Biennale.
As most things in life, Enwezor was not without his critics, those who perhaps, feared the magnitude of his thoughts, his capacity for sensing, broadening contemporary art spaces they had over overlooked. He certainly had his fair share of controversy the latest which included rumors of fund mismanagement which along with his struggle with cancer, segued into his resignation as artistic director at Haus der Kunst.
Despite his three years struggle with cancer, he remained active till the end, giving out directives for the installation of Ghanaian but Nigerian resident artist, El Anatsui’s gigantic exhibition, ‘The Triumphant Scale,’ an exhibition he co-curated with Okeke-Agulu, now showing at Haus der Kunst.
Although his absence at the opening was conspicuous, his influence can be felt in the aesthetics and conceptual aspect of the show.
Okwui is now the second Nigerian curator to die of cancer this year and the third Nigerian arts and literary influencer who has passed on within the space of two months this year. As we join the rest of the world to globally recognise artists, curators, architects such as Ghana’s David Adjaye in remembering him, let’s reflect on his achievements and find ways as a country, to immortalise a man who has not only made us proud, but one whose value of achievements will remain relevant and better appreciated in the future.
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