Curator Okwui Enwezor has died at the age of 55 after years of battling cancer and leaves a legacy that a blog concerned with de-colonialisation must address. When he learned about his passing away, Curator Cuauhtémoc Medina said on Twitter that Enwezor “was a major force of contemporary culture. His achievement as curator of some of the most important global exhibitions of the last decade punctuated the emergence of the South as a global cultural movement.” I cannot agree more with Medina. Enwezor’s extreme commitment with the ethical, however, made him overlook aesthetics which open an ongoing debate where this blog inserts itself.
Born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963, Enwezor moved to New York in 1982 and earned his undergraduate degree in political science from what is now New Jersey City University. He wrote and performed poetry, and like so many in that field, he soon found his way into art criticism. In the early 1990s, he began curating shows regularly, and in 1994, while based in Brooklyn, he cofounded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African
Later on he was the first African-born curator to organise the Venice Biennale, a show that began in 1895, and was the first non-European to oversee Documenta, the every-five-years exhibition in Kassel, Germany, which he organized in 2002. The latter was both groundbreaking and problematic. In the run-up to the opening of Documenta in June of 2002, Enwezor presented what he termed platforms—conferences, seminars, and other projects—in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, Nigeria. Unlike past editions of Documenta, Enwezor’s exhibition was not dominated by artists from Europe and the United States, but included a significant number of African, Asian, and South American artists.
His Documenta 11 helped producing a paradigmatic change in artistic and curatorial discourse by rejecting the trend of ‘global’ artists which since the Neo-liberal 90s had dominated the art world with artists like Gabriel Orozco or Rirkrit Tiravanija who mistook displacement and nomadism with the romanticised lyricism of the itinerant artist. Enwezor understood that ‘artistic nomadism’ in itself wasn’t enough to relieve the artistic world from the moral postcolonial burden of having to acknowledge minorities. His work in documenta aimed at generating a platform that showed a more productive post-colonial discourse than the ethically compromised triumphalism of ‘late capitalist globalisation’.
In Documenta 11 he aimed at representing ‘proximity’ as the preferable mode to understand the conditions created by globalisation. Embracing photography, video and film as the media that could achieve that ‘proximity’, he worked with artists such as Ravi Agarvwal, David Goldblatt, Olumuyiwa Osifuye and Ulrike Ottinger. Carlos Basualdo, his co-curator in Kassel, went as far as describing that exhibition as a transnational public platform raising questions whether about the efficacy of political art.
I think Enwezor’s greatest legacy is the belief that amidst today’s inequalities, there is not much space for art to be ‘nice’ or aestheticising. According to him: ‘the only way to examine the bare lives (Agambem) of those expelled by the system is that of the documentary space or what the French call verité’. When asked about what he meant by ‘documentary space’, he defined it as ‘a deliberate forensic inclination essentially concerned with registering hard facts’. According to him the idea of ‘verité’ was the process of exploration, questioning, analysis and diagnosis of the quest for truth. This was his mistake. Hard facts are nothing but fiction and sometimes the language that denounces exclusion is the same that perpetuates it. Enwezor didn’t see that the documentary medium is always a form of representation. Having said this, we couldn’t speak about contemporary art in the post colonial terms that we do today without Enwezor’s Documenta 11. his legacy is, thus, enormous. J A T