In December, Okwui Enwezor wrote to me from Munich. He had leukemia. ‘What I miss most,’ he said, ‘is the noise of life humming out there. It’s much too quiet here.’ He died last Friday, aged 55. Since then it’s felt very quiet, both for those who knew him personally, and for the many people who admired his work as a curator and writer. Okwui had a deep, booming voice, and a purposeful one. When he spoke, you listened. It’s hard to imagine not hearing it.
I first met Okwui in 2002 in Kassel, where he was curating Documenta. He grew up in Calabar, a port city in southeastern Nigeria, and was the first non-European to curate the exhibition. He wasn’t grateful for the chance. He knew he’d earned it, which isn’t to say he wasn’t aware of those in the art world who considered him a beneficiary of affirmative action or post-colonial guilt. Tall and dandyish – he loved pointy shoes and ascots – Okwui looked like An Important Man, and was sometimes mistaken for an ambassador in that provincial German city.
In a sense, he was. Okwui was born in 1963, three years after Nigeria won its independence. His formative experience of being an ‘other’, he said, took place not in the West but in Nigeria, when his family, members of the Igbo minority, had to flee their home during the Biafran war. A nostalgic vision of African unity wasn’t an option. Still, Okwui had the old-fashioned aura of the African statesman in the West, and the bearing of an aristocrat. He styled himself as a spokesman for formerly colonised peoples whose images had been distorted or erased from the museums and galleries of the rich world. In his remarkable 2001 exhibition at the Villa Stuck in Munich, The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-94, Okwui proposed to ‘view the history of the 20th century from the vantage point of the struggle of subject peoples to regain their independence and liberty’.
For Okwui, the museum was a territory to be liberated from the colonial gaze. His first exhibition, In/Sight, a survey of African photographers at the Guggenheim in SoHo in 1996, turned Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé, among others, into international art celebrities. It encompassed North Africa as well as countries south of the Sahara, and included white, Arab and Asian artists. In his later group shows, notably Documenta, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale, he showed up the provincialism of his Western colleagues by foregrounding the work of artists from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the diasporas of the Black Atlantic.
Okwui’s art world looked more like the world itself. But this was no occasion for self-congratulation, much less for exercises in the sterile American rhetoric of ‘inclusion’, which he disdained. His project was to decolonise the art world: not to make it more ‘diverse’ but to redistribute power inside it.
Art, he believed, like other human activities, took place in a field of argument and struggle over limited resources. He did not shy away from conflict, or from jousting with other curators, such as Robert Storr, with whom he engaged in furious argument over contemporary African art in the pages of Artforum. At the Venice Biennale, he staged a marathon reading of Marx’s Capital. For Okwui, decolonising the art world meant more than having more shows for artists from the Global South: it meant reappraising the entire history of Western modernism from a non-Western perspective. His last published essay was on Andy Warhol’s ‘disaster’ series, including his images of the 1963 civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, written for the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney.
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