Okwui Enwezor: Internationalist who left his heart in SA

Nigerian-born curator focused discourse on African art, making it globally appealing

24 March 2019 - 00:00 By Bongani Madondo

"I don't believe you have to be a native of a specific country to fully appreciate that place's cultural dynamism, its art, people and geopolitical significance. South Africa, for me, feels likes home. I make it home to my inquiry."
Tall, genial, clad in a black polo neck and black slacks, reluctant smile in place, Okwui Enwezor was holding court with artists and scholars, including the now late fashion photographer Daniele Tamagni, in the Melville home of art adviser Makgati Molebatsi.
It was the summer of 2014, on the eve of Enwezor's major South African photography survey, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, spanning a century of photography.
Nigerian-born Enwezor died aged 55 last Thursday from cancer. He was a globally recognised art curator, a respected scholar, a man of sartorial elegance with a fierce mind who suffered no fools. He was also a poet. Often it takes a poet to see what everyone else is blind to.
At the time of his death Enwezor was based in Munich, Germany, having recently resigned after serving seven years as the artistic director of Haus Der Kunst, a major museum in Bavaria.
Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor was born on October 23 1963, four years before the Biafran War, in the southeastern Nigerian town of Calabar, populated by the Igbo, Ibibio and Efik people. During the Atlantic slave trade, the port city had been one of the major departure points for ships carrying captured Africans as human cargo to be sold as chattel in Europe and the "new world" across the Atlantic.
Enwezor grew up in the Igbo city of Enugu and spent a semester at Enugu State University before moving to the US in 1982 when he was 18. In 1987 he graduated from New Jersey City University with a degree in political science. Later he told Nigerian art historian Chika-Okeke Agulu: "Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbour any sign of paralysing inferiority complex."
The New York Enwezor stepped into in the early 1980s was entering a cultural renaissance. Streets and subway trains were exploding with graffiti with subversive poetic tagging and "bombing" (graffiti slang for painting illegal screeds on public property). New styles of music, visual art, fashion and literature rose from the grime of the 1970s.
Enwezor immersed himself in poetry, performing at the fabled Knitting Factory and Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village.
"A deep love for words drew me to the East Village poetry scene," he told me in an interview. "My life's quest for words - words as sound, words as visual entities, words as life-engineering particles, words and their power to build, smash, restore, transcend, and words as a site of power - brought me to the visual arts."
Enwezor spoke often about how he was visually and intellectually shaped by the South African and West African versions of Drum magazine. He drew on these influences when in 1994 he founded the Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art (its name derived from the Igbo word for art and discourse), which showcased African art and writing from a totally uncompromising stance. Nka, much more than universities, galleries and museums, centred contemporary art discourse and its players on the African arts, putting them on the global art market.
Nka brought Enwezor to the attention of the Guggenheim Museum, where in 1996 he was invited to stage a major show, the hugely influential In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to Present. It included photography by Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani, David Goldblatt and Ricardo Rangel, and introduced Malian portraitist Seydou Keita long before his work became très chic.
The same year, Enwezor was appointed the curatorial director of the second Johannesburg Art Biennale. His approach to work, that West African trading tradition which in New York is known as "hustling", saw him rise to be a prominent, controversial curator.
He stomped across Europe, turning art traditions inside out and changing perceptions about curating. From 2005 to 2009 he was a dean at the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2015 he was appointed director of the Venice Biennale and in 2016 he was number 28 on the annual Artlyst Power 100, which ranks the most influential people in the art world.
Some, however, saw him as an interloper, partly because he was not native to the space he worked in but mostly because he was a self-made theorist and curator untrained in art history or fine art.
Ten years ago, Nigerian curator and scholar Sylvester Ogbechie presented a now widely circulated academic paper with the long-winded title: The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary Art.
Central to his critique of Enwezor is that the curator spoke for and not from Africa. According to Ogbechie, Enwezor's "curatorial focus is devoted to radical notions of contemporaneity built mainly on the practice of African artists who live and work in the West". This was dishonest and petty.
Enwezor is not beyond reproach - I, for one, felt that his dense language sometimes overstated the philosophical over the aesthetic import of art - but claims that he prioritised Western-based African artists are rubbish.
Speaking for SA alone, early on he became a major champion of Santu Mofokeng, Kay Hassan, Mohammed Camara, Kendell Geers, Moshekwa Langa, William Kentridge, Henti van der Merwe, Nontsikelelo Veleko and many others, all of whom were based here.
Photographer Fanie Jason once told me: "Before Okwui Enwezor paid me a visit and spent a full day genuinely engaging with my work in Gugulethu, no other curator, black or white, had been to my place."
Enwezor's love for SA ran deep. New York Times art critic Jason Farago recalls him speaking of how he watched the waves crash at the southernmost tip of Africa while trying to decide on the themes of the Biennale he was in SA to direct. Enwezor said: "I was astonished by the experience of standing there, where the two oceans met. I knew at that very moment this would be my concept: the meeting of worlds."
He was not a blind romantic, however. In his monograph on Zwelethu Mthethwa's photography, Enwezor ruefully observed: "Writing about works of South African art always seems like walking down a cul-de-sac. At the end of the one-way street, what one finds is SA's anguish."
In 2012 Enwezor staged The Rise and Fall of Apartheid at the International Center for Photography in New York. When the exhibition travelled to SA in 2014, it caused some conflict. At Museum Africa on opening night, a group of South African photographers heckled Enwezor, accusing him of parachuting into SA and doing what he wished with local work for self-aggrandisement.
Art commentators bitched in the press that Okwui "used" local photographers' work without proper credit. But he was supported by many, including photographer Jürgen Schadeberg, who told Enwezor's critics to take a hike.
The exhibition was a global success and the University of Cape Town gave Enwezor an honorary doctorate.
Western art commentators often refer to Enwezor as "the first non-European" to curate Germany's Documenta 11, one of the world's most prestigious international art gigs (he is one of only two curators to be entrusted with both this show and the Venice Biennale) but Okwui was never a "non-European". He was a futurist African who regarded the world as his oyster. 1963-2019

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