The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues
JUL-AUG 2019 Issue
In Memoriam

A Tribute to Okwui Enwezor


Portrait of Okwui Enwezor, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Okwui Enwezor, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Ulrich Wilmes

There is beauty amidst suffering,
joy in grief,
hope in despair
and new life even in death.
(Igbo proverb)

In Okwui Enwezor the world has lost a great interpreter of the present day and a brilliant curator. I had the privilege, for a precious period, of accompanying him on his path, and am profoundly grateful for this.

Okwui Enwezor was a good human being with an unprejudiced attitude towards everyone whom he met.

“Hi, I am Okwui!” This was how he usually introduced himself; approachable, polite, and honestly curious, he reinforced the impression with the infectious and winning warmth of his disarming smile.

After a first, fleeting encounter in the context of Documenta11, we met in October 2010 on the occasion of an exhibition opening at the Tate Modern in London and arranged to talk about the possibility of his engagement as director of Haus der Kunst in Munich. The meeting took place two weeks later in New York. I could not really imagine why a globally operating curator from New York would come to provincial Bavaria. However, at that time I was not aware of the special significance that Germany held for Okwui Enwezor.

After founding the NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1993 in collaboration with Salah Hassan (Cornell University) and Chika Okeke-Agulu (Princeton University) and directing the second Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa in 1997, in 1998, with shameful historical lateness, he was appointed the first non-European director of Documenta in Kassel. Yet one year before it opened in 2002, this did not prevent him from staging a pioneering exhibition at Villa Stuck in Munich, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945 – 1994, presenting African culture in art, film, photography, architecture, music, literature and theatre.

The Short Century and Documenta11 had made Germany, in his own words, “his second intellectual home”. And the Haus der Kunst, with its historical stigma, was predestined for Okwui Enwezor as a place where he could individually shape a programme with focussed content.

Okwui Enwezor was a globalizer in the best sense of the word. His purpose was to unite and not to exclude anything. The projects that repeatedly testified to this were above all those in which he took up great, overarching themes: exhibitions such as All the World’s Futures for the 56th Biennale in Venice. And not least Postwar, Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–1965, which he implemented with Katy Siegel (Stony Brook University) and myself. Its ambition and its realisation with 350 works by 218 artists from 65 countries were unparalleled presumptuousness, in the face of which Okwui Enwezor was not fearful for a moment.

The exhibition was intended to be the opening part of a trilogy on the global history of art in the second half of the twentieth century, the other chapters of which were to be the eras of Post-Colonialism and Post-Communism. This was Okwui Enwezor’s very own field, which he had staked out and surveyed in his working life. With the planned trilogy he wished to present the latest status of research, to which not only his own work but also that of many colleagues and friends had led. He was not granted the opportunity to conclude this.

Thus Okwui Enwezor’s legacy remains the comprehensive exhibition surveying the work of the great Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, on which he worked to the last with his long-standing friend and collaborator Chika Okeke-Agulu. Triumphant Scale is not only the significant title of this stunning display of works; it also provides a final explanation of his historical understanding of the architecture of the Haus der Kunst and of the enlightened contemporary approach to it.

Okwui Enwezor’s native language was Igbo, and keeping it up was important to him. Every opportunity that he had to speak Igbo with relatives, friends or people whom he met by chance was a source of special joy, experienced in his everyday life in Munich, too, when he encountered compatriots such as his Nigerian hairdresser in the district around the central station.

His absolutely inexhaustible store of Igbo proverbs was legendary. I repeatedly resolved to note them down, but unfortunately this did not usually go beyond good intentions. However, his ability to insert them into a discourse with an often astonishing aptness sometimes led me to wonder whether the proverb was truly rooted in Igbo tradition or was his own spontaneous invention.

An adage of the Igbo that is known to be genuine says:

When an old man dies in Africa, a library burns down.

Okwui Enwezor died too young, but there can be no doubt that one of the best-stocked libraries in the world has passed away with him.

Because the fine arts were not his first and only passion. Originally, this passion – after he had completed his studies of political science – was for poetry. His relationship to language and texts therefore went far beyond their function as a rough tool for everyday communication. Rather, he used language like a surgical instrument, with which he dissected and passed on his experience of the visible.

From 1982, after moving from Nigeria to study in the USA, his command of his second language, English, was so cultivated that he could lend expression to his thoughts in a way that matched his aspirations. To his own chagrin, he was not able to achieve this in German, despite his close connection to the country, because he was simply not content to master the language only as far as necessary to make conversation. Such respect for the German language was sometimes interpreted in Munich as ignorance, and this at times by people who hardly took the trouble to pronounce his name correctly. Nevertheless, Okwui Enwezor greatly liked the city, and every time when he returned from a journey, took mischievous pleasure in responding to the immigration officer’s question about the reason for his stay in Munich with the words “I live here!”

If you only look back, you don’t move ahead. (Igbo)

In our meetings in recent months, he looked ahead to the last. Projects in which he was engaged or that we wanted to carry out together were the subjects of our discussions. As always we considered, planned and debated, agreed and disagreed – and laughed.

Only at rare moments did Okwui Enwezor allow others to share his inner fears.

At one of our last encounters we talked about our experiences at school, which in the nature of things were very different, and with a laugh he told me that he was at that time the only boy from his home town who had enjoyed attending a boarding school, because he regarded independence from home as gaining freedom, and even more because he loved the smart school uniforms.

The sound of the world is poorer for the silencing of his laughter.

Okwui Enwezor with Ulrich and Marion Wilmes at the concert of Einstürzende Neubauten in Haus der Kunst Munich, June 27, 2015. ©Jörg Koopmann.
Okwui Enwezor with Ulrich and Marion Wilmes at the concert of Einstürzende Neubauten in Haus der Kunst Munich, June 27, 2015. ©Jörg Koopmann.

Irene V. Small

Okwui was a giant, simply put. I have so many memories of him. The way he would chortle while reading, looking up for a moment to deliver the most penetrating analysis, delivered with a mixture of glee and certitude that only comes from understanding texts as living, arguing, expansive interlocutors. The way he cradled his beautiful newborn daughter, amidst reams of folders and exhibition layouts and a continuous stream of correspondence. The way he taught and mentored me and so many others, walking to the subway in Fort Greene, scouting for blue crabs in Chinatown, on the phone from an airport, composing an essay while talking, as if from thin air. I also have not enough memories of him. I worked for him for only a year and a half, during preparations for The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994 and Documenta11. But even that experience changed the course of my life: my intellectual and aesthetic convictions, my sense of the political possibility of art, my sense of the work to be done. I met my husband and best friend through him. I became an art historian because of those exhibitions. I am still working through his lessons. We are all still looking to realize even a minutiae of what he envisioned and made possible.

Okwui's exhibitions were suffused with moments in which aesthetic arguments gained precise, crystalline form. I think of the way the brutally splayed body of Sydney Kumalo's 1962 Killed Horse infected the gallery with violence in The Short Century, or how, turning the corner at the Arsenale at his 2015 Venice Biennale, one encountered the almost unbearable resonance between Melvin Edwards's magisterial Lynch Fragments (1963) and the towering monument of Terry Adkins' Muffled Drums (2003). Some might call such rhetorical sightlines didactic. But they are so only for those with little empathy or imagination. For to consider deeply the confrontation of silenced sound and the sedimentation of cultural knowledge that is sculptural form is to begin to comprehend that material gestures carry within them entangled histories of rapture, pain, protest, and pride. It is to grasp how artworks transform one affect into another in the space of encounter, and to internalize that the expressivity of such gestures is both residual, archaic and tightly wound, in potentia. It is not for nothing that Okwui activated that Arsenale corridor with the curious, exquisite stutters of Allora & Calzadilla's disassembled and reassembled version of Joseph Haydn's oratorio, The Creation (1796–98), which unfolded, against itself, in media res.

Okwui laid waste to the fiction of the autonomy or insularity of art. But contrary to his detractors, he believed in art with the full force of his being. This is what gave his exhibitions and writing such political force: they were roiling with insurgency in the face of an art world that craves disruption only when it can be assimilated without a tremor. Working for Okwui on The Short Century taught me about the archive in the Foucauldian sense, that is, as an apparatus in which power consolidates at the very joints of articulation (or non-articulation). But working for him also taught me that archives must be wrenched and coaxed into being. This is the reason that some of his exhibitions—Postwar, for instance—were telescopic and constellatory, as if each work opened out into a vast compendium of existing relations, but was, at that very instant, pressed into the infrastructure of an art history yet to be written.

I traveled to Munich in the midst of writing this to see Okwui's last exhibition, a retrospective of the Nigeria-based Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, organized with Okwui's long time collaborator Chika Okeke-Agulu. Okwui's most ambitious exhibitions were site specific in some fundamental sense, and that goes for much of the work he did in that most fraught of buildings, the Haus der Kunst. For this exhibition, Anatsui clad its neoclassical facade with thousands of offset printing plates sourced from near and far, confronting the Nazi mythology of eternal style with a porous membrane spun from the material detritus of our global image economy. Two words—or rather operations—seemed particularly poignant as I encountered Anatsui's sculptures inside, their gleaming, undulating surfaces constructed from innumerable pieces of folded, punctured metal foil. First, edge. Anatsui works from a logic of the fragment, so edge is the material means by which his compositions grow and gain flesh. Perhaps for this reason, the limits of Anatsui's works are often moments of extraordinary beauty and fluorescence, as if to acknowledge but also stave off the finitude of each end. Second, cut. Anatsui's compositions depend upon interruption: striations, clusters, and blips that variegate a chromatic field. But sometimes he cleaves the entire fabric of a work, as in The Beginning and the End (2015), in which a thin ribbon of metal snakes its way through the composition from the lower left. Extruded on either side, this ribbon is a suture and a scar. It is also a lesson of how rupture brings about grace.

Working with Okwui could be punishing. He demanded the same superhuman stamina that he had. Everything mattered, everything was urgent. But it really was, and it continues to be. The battles he was obliged to confront never stopped, and in fact, only intensified in their brazenness. Yet in the midst of emergency was also elegance and infectious delight, whether in the parlays of a critical debate, a turn of phrase, the cut of a well-tailored suit. I can't help but wonder in the wake of his passing if Okwui had enough stamina for himself. He was impossible and radiant and generous and uncompromising. Singular, always and ever. Thank you Okwui. Rest in power.

Iftikhar Dadi

After several years in Karachi developing artistic and research projects, I returned to the US in 1998 to work on a PhD in art history with Salah Hassan at Cornell University. Hassan and Okwui Enwezor were among the founders of the journal Nka, which remains a leading publication on contemporary African and diaspora art. Nka began publishing in 1994: its office has been housed at Cornell since 1995. Working with Hassan, I became aware of Enwezor’s groundbreaking exhibitions as well as his numerous writings. And when Cornell’s Institute for Comparative Modernities (ICM) started over a decade ago with Hassan as director and myself as faculty, Enwezor was on ICM’s Advisory Board from its inception–this led to further interactions.

During the late 90s, academic art history as well as the museum world were both just beginning to come to grips with understanding modern and contemporary art as a multifaceted global development. At that time, Enwezor's curatorial projects had immense significance. His exhibitions were instantly recognizable by their ambitious range and depth, and the accompanying publications played an extremely vital role in disseminating his curatorial vision, and the work of emerging scholars and fellow travelers, within the academy and beyond.

Other curators were also beginning to grapple with art as a global practice, but they focused solely on contemporary artists–by now this has fully congealed into “global contemporary art,” a dubious and flattened conception of contemporaneity that is presumed to have flourished only in the wake of 1989. Enwezor’s diverse curatorial projects, however, not only addressed contemporary art from across the world, but also excavated the deeper lineages of modern art and decolonization since the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

Of the many incisive exhibitions that Enwezor curated, the most impactful for me has been The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994, which I saw at MoMA PS1 in 2002. The show and its accompanying publication vividly exemplified the tremendous creative and institutional energies unleashed by decolonization in Africa. The exhibition was strikingly multifaceted, encompassing art, publications, and architecture, as well as political and institutional developments. No one who visited that exhibition should ever again misconstrue Africa’s deep relation to the modern. The Short Century remains exemplary for other regions of the Global South, which still await deep and comparative exhibition and publication projects.

It was therefore particularly important for me that his late major exhibition in 2017 at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Post War: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-65 returned to the many of the insights of The Short Century and restaged them on a fully global level, now completely dissolving hierarchical distinctions between the West and the non-West. Characteristically, Enwezor prepared the ground for this exhibition by convening a four-day conference in 2014 at Haus der Kunst. Here we encountered a generous landscape both familiar and new, but which was above all premised on the recognition that modern art everywhere has advanced through complex global relays of exchange and movement. (The volume of essays Enwezor was working on with Atreyee Gupta–which includes my presentation at the conference and those by other contributors–is forthcoming from Duke University Press).

Post War has proposed a mighty intellectual and institutional challenge to museums that have long claimed to represent modern art, but which are only now awkwardly beginning to address its global trajectories. As always, Enwezor has remained ahead of everyone, even after his passing.


Ulrich Wilmes

Ulrich Wilmes was chief curator at Haus der Kunst in Munich from 2008 to 2018

Iftikhar Dadi

Iftikhar Dadi is the director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University.

Irene V. Small

Irene V. Small is assistant professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues