Okwui Enwezor (23 October 1963 - 15 March 2019)

Okwui Enwezor sadly passed away on 15 March at the age of 55. One of the world’s leading curators of contemporary art, he recast the meaning of exhibition making for a whole generation. Enwezor was born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963, and grew up in Enugu. He moved to New York in the early 1980s, studying political science at what is now New Jersey City University. While he wrote and performed poetry, he soon found his way into art criticism. In 1996, Enwezor organized In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present at the Guggenheim Museum’s location in the SoHo section of Manhattan. He curated the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, which opened in 1997. He curated The Short Century in 2001. He was the first African born and non-European curator of documenta XI, 2002 and he was the curator of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. He also went on to organize Archive Fever, 2008, the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea and the 2012 Triennale at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 2013 he organised the seminal exhibition, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.

Okwui’s period as Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich (2011–2018) saw an extraordinary number of major exhibitions of artists such as Stan Douglas, Georg Baselitz, Ellen Gallagher, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hanne Darboven, Matthew Barney, and most recently, El Anatsui. In 2016, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965, included 350 pieces by more than 200 artists, including the Australian artist Tony Tuckson.

Okwui visited Australia many times, and I had the pleasure of first meeting him in my role as Chair of the Visual Arts Board, when he did numerous studio visits for documenta II in which he included the work of Destiny Deacon. In partnership with Nikos Papastergiadis, we arranged for his return to Australia to speak as a keynote at the conference Empires, Ruins, Networks, at ACMI in 2004, and I was also honoured to have worked with him on a Monash Art Design Architecture conference in Prato, Italy, in 2009 entitled Archive/Counter Archive, one of his great passions. Owkui visited Australia many more times, lastly for his research for the 56th Venice Biennale, where he included the work of Daniel Boyd, Newell Harry, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, Emily Floyd and Marco Fusinato, probably the highest number of Australian artists ever represented.

For Okwui, the dialogue between east and west, north and south, and the decolonisation of art were of foremost importance. His 2012 Triennale in Paris was titled Intense Proximity, and this was a method he used in many of his exhibitions, where the sharp montage of strident works of art would generate debate, insight and complexity.

Okwui was a mentor to many people around the world, including myself. He was warm, generous, with a huge intellect and insight. He enjoyed karaoke as much as he did a conversation about politics, society and art. He was a great friend to Australian art and artists and will be missed by many. His output equalled many lifetimes’ work, and will remain as a legacy and instruction for generations to come.


The following interview was originally published in Art and Australia Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2008 Issue.

Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor is one of the pre-eminent curators of our time. As artistic director of documenta XI, among other important shows, he has helped shift the parameters of postcolonial artistic discourse. On the eve of his directorship of the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Enwezor speaks with Victoria Lynn about the relationship between art and politics. [1]

Victoria Lynn: Can you explain the title of the Gwangju Biennale: Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions?

Okwui Enwezor: There were two immediate points of importance while I was reflecting on the Gwangju Biennale. Firstly, I was wary of putting together a project around another theme, simply because in my view we are in a moment of crisis in terms of the large thematic biennale exhibition. This crisis has been precipitated by the fact that biennales have expanded exponentially, (which I think is a good thing), but also because there is often little time and resources available to develop a fully realised, intellectually rich and historically timely theme. Annual Report was specifically designed to deal with the temporality of the exhibition as a network of event, place and time, as well as to manifest an engagement with the multi-polar of contemporary art.

Secondly, the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how, since the beginning of this decade, exhibitions themselves have really become a medium unto themselves. I wanted to explore what is this exhibition ‘space’: the exhibition as a space of encounter. In order to do that, I embarked on the notion of transparent research to show that exhibitions themselves are cultural products. It is not simply what is in them, but their structure. By transparent research I mean that I did not want to go to exhibitions and then emerge having made some kind of fresh discovery. I am analysing the exhibition system and my relation to that system: my dialogue with colleagues and the general construct of the exhibition as an intellectual and cultural proposition. This is what Annual Report is about. In that sense it will also show the limits of the networked global system. I have invited several exhibitions to be part of the larger exhibition, but I have not actually seen all the exhibitions. For me, the exhibition is a kind of portmanteau that you can carry to different places. So the earliest exhibition in the biennale is Dayanita Singh’s recent show, Go Away Closer at Nature Morte in New Delhi. Exhibitions like hers point to the fact there is a global conversation taking place, and we are part of this global conversation.

VL: The biennale is a combination of spectacle, marketplace and a product of globalisation. The curator Manray Hsu has characterised biennales in three ways: there is the international hit list biennale, which tends to look completely outwards from the location in which it is held; there is the regional biennale, which tends to include works according to their location; and then there is a third type, which he calls ‘globalisation from below’, in which clusters of artists or artist-groups can be said to be creating work in a global context from a local perspective.[2] Biennales have to negotiate the global and the local, or at least redefine these terms accordingly. How is the Gwangju Biennale going to do this?

OE: Manray’s analysis is a very interesting one and I think that from those three types of biennales he was designating, what emerge in my view are not just simply spaces, but also contexts and conditions of production. Whether a biennale is internationalist or regional or globalist, what often is not properly taken up are the very conditions under which artists make work. These conditions allow them to either be part of a bigger conversation by acquiring the language competency, or the symbols that are needed to speak an international or global patois.

Given the time frame, it was not possible that I could be the person to do the proper job of articulating the local biennale. However, I took it upon myself to learn something or two about the spaces in which contemporary artists in Korea are developing their thinking, so I focused my energy on the more emerging scene, with specific focus on younger, rigorous artists who have little or no representation in the gallery system. I was interested in the idea of May ’68 as a fable of revolution, and from that I am interested in addressing the issue of societies in transition. For example, there is the work of Korean photographer Jina Park, begun in the mid-1980s when he was sixteen. He depicts the unruly nature of the Korean sociopolitical space throughout the 1980s when the country was in turmoil. I am looking at arenas, systems of massive display of civic energy, at emancipatory processes that are informed by diverse projects linked to civil society and modes of social and political self-realisation, and so on. One exhibition in the biennale which is inspired by, and takes up the spirit of the 18 May 1980 Gwangju uprising, is a small exhibition curated by Claire Tancons called Spring. This will be staged as a carnival procession with artists from Trinidad, Haiti, Germany, South Korea and one group from Hong Kong. This is for me one way to touch on the local conditions that do have a very specific global relationship.

The second thing I want to say about contemporary art in Korea—at least the work I am interested in—is its sense of radical modesty. This is the kind of work that self-consciously departs from the grandiose gesture, from the hyper production of artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and so on. This work articulates its position through fragments and notations, where the anatomy of the work becomes, if you will, the work. Part of the biennale is around the idea of collage and assemblage, and I wanted to see how we depart from the modernist idea of the collage and go to the more messy idea of bricolage.

VL: In the last decade there has been an increased focus on art and politics. There have been various positions taken on their connection, and how best to understand or describe this relationship. For instance, Jacques Rancière has written about the notion of ‘dissensus’.[3] And then there are curators such as Hou Hanru and Charles Esche who have drawn parallels between the widespread protest march and the informal politics of mass movements and the informal nature of some artworks—a kind of politics from below. Most of your work has looked at art and the postcolonial condition. Could you talk about the relationship between art and politics for you.

OE: It goes without saying that under conditions of unequal access to institutional legitimation artists are immediately thrown into a politics of visibility, the politics of legitimation. And that is something that we cannot avoid under the postcolonial condition because it is a politics of not only resources, it is a politics of breaking up the kind of economic instruments that deny the unruly agency that emanates from some of these areas. Whether we like it or not, under the postcolonial condition art is deeply implicated in politics because the institutions of art are largely institutions of modernity. I have no investment in the idea that art’s meaning is only through the aesthetic relationship with the viewer. That is why for the Gwangju Biennale I am interested in the exhibition as a space of encounter.

Further, I come from a generation, born in the early 1960s, when the postcolonial utopia was supposed to be the kingdom that we were going to inherit. Except what is really very clear is that a postcolonial utopia at that moment of decolonisation has largely not fulfilled its promise. What has happened is that we are living in the moment of postcolonial reality, which is the moment of social struggle and contestations, of limited means and marginal lives; in a world of fervid necropolitics and grotesque inequalities; in an absence of social justice and economic deficits. The response to these conditions underscores the why of the shift from utopia to reality. To my thinking, this reality represents new scenes of struggle.

Finally, this idea of mass movement I take very seriously because I come from a country where the everyday struggle between artists, intellectuals and the state is a real one. Artists go to jail in Nigeria for making something that elsewhere in the world would appear as innocuous. And intellectuals go to jail for having the temerity of social imagination. The intention of artists I admire (Ousmane Sembène, Abderrahmane Sissako, Wole Soyinka) is not simply to make a connection between art and the spaces in which they live, and nor is it simply to make political art; it is to create conditions of political awareness through which art can operate in freedom.

VL: Through the coalition of small gestures, art can have an agency of opening up another space that we don’t have access to on a daily level.

OE: Yes, inviting other processes of working into the spaces of art creates important linkages and stops us from embracing the ideologically compromised notion of artistic autonomy. If we were to take the idea of collage to bricolage, and see that in collage what is being articulated is at the seams between things, in bricolage what is being articulated is something different. It is the culture of the patois, of the not quite there, the belated, the inauthentic. Call it the dissensus, as Rancière would say. When I think of assemblage in terms of Nigeria, I think of tocumbo; it is a word for second child, the one who is therefore second best. And there is a market of tocumbo in Nigeria, which is a market of second-hand goods that come from the West, the detritus of the West.

VL: For many years you have been interested in the archive in contemporary art, and you recently curated Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art for New York’s International Center of Photography. In particular, there is an interest in the ways in which artists can mix, combine, montage and rearticulate the past and I wonder if this is not also a challenge for curatorial practice. If we are to follow Derrida’s notion that the archive is characterised by two notions—a system of records but also a domicile, a place that has a kind of logic—perhaps we can also think of the exhibition in this way.[4]

OE: Etymologically, the term ‘curator’ is—in the modern and contemporary sense—an archivist, so the exhibition is ur-archive as such. The function of the curator is the function of interpretation, translation and of legitimation. I am interested in looking at archives as a space of productive relationship between different systems of knowledge, as the space of reimagining our relationship to meaning, ideas, culture and various systems for interpreting and translating aesthetic and artistic forms. Archive Fever is concerned with the fact that artists are taking up this imperative of re-examining the historical system through which archives are places of authority; to deconstruct the homogenised meaning that comes out of that transmission. Artists interested in the archive emerge precisely at a point in which intelligence and information systems became the dominant ways of accumulating power.

VL: You have said elsewhere that, for you, the role of the curator has evolved to also include an intellectual and critical position.

OE: I don’t see what I do as inseparable from the structures of legitimation in which art and artists are cast, when it affects the institution of the museum. And this is not just in the West. Fundamentally museums and exhibitions are devices of modernity, interpretation, translation and categorisation. They are archives. To be a curator and to enter into that system is a struggle with all this classification of knowledge. I think that a curator’s task is neither to confirm nor to deride a system, but it is to work and operate in the system as part of the complex organism that makes for a healthy ecology.

I want to use exhibitions productively, not to consolidate an authoritarian or dictatorial view of art, but to use the exhibition space as this space of encounter, between many contending notions of artistic practice; as a space in which knowledge systems, aesthetic systems and artistic systems converge, sometimes in harmony and sometimes in great disharmony. What I want to do as a curator is to stage these encounters. Often I would like an exhibition to arrive at the complexity of a novel and I am beginning to come to terms with that through Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘chronotope’ or time-space. I am very interested in his notion of adventure time—which is really the space of imagination and invention of art—and the everyday time in which this art then enters into the space of other people.


[1] The interview took place on the occasion of Enwezor’s ‘Biennales in Dialogue’ keynote lecture, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, July 2008, and was facilitated by Anna Waldmann, the Australia Council for the Arts’ then Visual Arts director.

[2] Manray Hsu, in Nicholas Tsoutas (ed.), Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South, Sydney Artspace Visual Art Centre, Sydney, 2005. p. 76.

[3] Jacques Rancière, ‘Art of the possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Rancière’, Artforum International, March 2007, p. 266.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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Victoria Lynn is Director of TarraWarra Museum of Art and the author of three books and over 80 articles and catalogues. Recently she curated Patricia Piccnini and Joy Hester: Through love…, 2018-19. During her Directorship of TarraWarra she also inaugurated and curated the TarraWarra International series, including Animate/Inanimate, 2013, Pierre Huyghe (co-curated with Amelia Barikin), 2015, and All that is solid… 2017. In 2012 she curated theTarraWarra Biennial: Sonic Spheres, and in 2016 she co-curated with Discipline/Helen Hughes, the TarraWarra Biennial: Endless Circulation. She has also curated shows by Rosemary Laing, Yhonnie Scarce, Judy Watson, Gosia Wlodarczak, Tony Tuckson, Nadine Christensen and Anne Wallace. Previous roles have included Independent Curator (2004 – 2012), organising exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand and Korea; Curatorial Manager and Creative Director, ACMI, (2001 – 2003), Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGNSW (1987 – 2001), Commisioner for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003 and Chair of the Visual Arts and Craft Board 2001 – 4.

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