Okwui Enwezor served as artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).
His global perspective and influence have played a significant role in transforming the contemporary art world
INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED curator and critic Okwui Enwezor announced on Monday that he is leaving the Haus der Kunst due to health reasons. He had been serving as artistic director of the Munich museum, Germany’s preeminent contemporary art institution, since 2011.
“I joined the organization with a strong mandate to advance the artistic, cultural, and intellectual profile of the museum, a task we achieved by a programmatically global demand on contemporary art and making Haus der Kunst internationally admired, while also spearheading successful fundraising of more than 35 million euros and recruiting a number of long-term partners to the museum,” Enwezor said in a museum statement.
The June 4 statement said his tenure had concluded on June 1, describing it as a joint decision by the Haus der Kunst board and Enwezor. Marion Kiechle, the Bavarian culture minister, who serves as chair of the museum’s board, said, “Thanks to Okwui Enwezor´s outstanding exhibition programme, Haus der Kunst´s international reputation has been considerably strengthened. As a result of his curatorial expertise, the institution has received worldwide recognition.”
Enwezor’s global perspective and influence have played a significant role in transforming the contemporary art world. He came to international prominence in 2002 when he served as artistic director of Documenta 11, the mega-exhibition staged in Kassel, Germany, every five years. Enwezor was the first non-European to direct the exhibition and he presented a world view in which African, Asian and Latin American art was foregrounded in Western art taking center stage. Over the years, he has overseen a number of biennial-style exhibitions around the world, in Johannesburg (1996–97), Seville, Spain (2006), Gwangju, South Korea (2008), and Paris (2012).
In 2015, Enwezor served as artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale. He was the first African appointed to the post. “All the World’s Futures,” his Venice exhibition, included more African artists than any of the previous editions of the biennial. He told ARTnews the representation was a reflection of what was going on in the world. “We are in a moment that we can say is a very strong challenge to Western exceptionalism. We have really entered into an era of post-Westernism,” he said.
“We are in a moment that we can say is a very strong challenge to Western exceptionalism. We have really entered into an era of post-Westernism.”
— Okwui Enwezor
March 6, 2015: Biennale Artistic Director Okwui Enwezor with Biennale President Paolo Baratta at the 56th Venice Biennale. | Photo by Joerg Koch, Getty Images
BORN IN NIGERIA, after a semester of college, Enwezor arrived in the United States in 1982. His plan, which he successfully executed, was to earn an undergraduate degree in political science from New Jersey City University. According to a 2014 profile in the Wall Street Journal Magazine, the move to America “was about expanding his worldview and getting involved with the downtown Manhattan art scene he’d read about in magazines.” Early on, his interest in poetry led to art criticism and eventually he co-founded the NKa: Journal of Contemporary African Art, publishing the inaugural issue in 1994.
“Enwezor comes, in short, from a very different place, geographically and intellectually, than most of his curatorial peers,” Adam Shatz wrote in a New York Times magazine profile about about Enwezor in advance of Documenta 11.
“Far from being intimidated by his lack of traditional credentials, however, Enwezor has been emboldened by it. He says he is trying to redefine the ideas of what it means to be a curator, of what kind of work belongs in an art show and of what a museum exhibit is supposed to accomplish. The aim of curating, he argues, is not to be a taste maker but to ‘produce knowledge’—not just of art, but of the world in which it is made.”
“Far from being intimidated by his lack of traditional credentials, however, Enwezor has been emboldened by it. He says he is trying to redefine the ideas of what it means to be a curator, of what kind of work belongs in an art show and of what a museum exhibit is supposed to accomplish.”
— Adam Shatz, New York Times magazine
His first major exhibition came two years later when he was one of three independent curators who helped co-curate “In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 To The Present” at the Guggenheim Museum. Also in New York, he organized “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” an ambitious survey at MoMA PS1 in 2002. The exhibition featured 50 artists from 22 countries working in a wide range of mediums—from art, film, photography, graphics, and architecture to music, literature, and theater. More recently, he co-presented “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life” at the International Center of Photography, a 2012 exhibition of South African photography spanning 60 years.
IN ADDITION TO BEING A CURATOR and critic, Enwezor is an educator who has served in academic positions at a number of universities, including the San Francisco Art Institute, New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Umea, Sweden. Two months ago, he came to the defense of Kristen Windmuller-Luna, one of his former students and her employer, the Brooklyn Museum, where she was appointed curator of African art. The March announcement generated a vociferous social media backlash, decrying the fact that a non-black person had been hired for the position. Essay writers expressed their dismay and the coalition group Decolonize This Place joined the cause with an open letter. After a brief initial statement, the museum remained mum, allowing the public objections to gain momentum.
Then the museum finally issued a full statement on April 6 from its director Anne Pasternak, which included a quote from Enwezor, that read in part: “The criticism around her appointment can be described as arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst. There is no place in the field of African art for such a reductive view of art scholarship according to which qualified and dedicated scholars like Kristen should be disqualified by her being white, and a woman. African art as a discipline deserves better, especially since the field needs engaged young scholars in order to continue to grow and thrive.”
He continued: “She has all of the necessary training to be an influential contributor to the field and has a deeply analytical mind. I am sure that she will be able to present the Brooklyn Museum’s world-renowned collection in a way that reflects both the historical problems surrounding early collecting and its meaning today in very complicated political times.”
Enwezor’s experience brought some real world context and facts about the field of African art to the situation and his imprimatur largely helped to quiet the controversy. Although Decolonize This Place issued another letter the following week, the flap seems to have abated for now.
Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes introduce the exhibition “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” (Oct. 14, 2016-March 26, 2017). Video by Haus der Kunst
AT THE HAUS DER KUNST, the strength of exhibition programming has been recognized under Enwezor’s leadership. “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965” was a notable triumph. The museum described the sweeping exhibition as examining, for the first time, “art of the postwar era from multiple perspectives—East and West, North and South, colonizer and colonized, Pacific and Atlantic.” Mounted in 2016-17, the diverse roster included American artists such as William de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha, alongside Picasso and artists from nations including Japan, Nigeria, Brazil, and Iran.
During his tenure, the museum also presented an impressive slate of solo exhibitions of artists such as Georg Baselitz, Louise Bourgeois, Mohamed Bourouissa, James Casebere, Stan Douglas, Ellen Gallagher, Mark Leckey, Oscar Murillo, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, Thomas Struth, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In less than a decade, a significant number of artists African descent have had a show at the German museum. Co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015, “David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material,” explored about 50 projects by the celebrated architect. “Mappa Mundi,” a retrospective of Frank Bowling curated by Enwezor was recently on view. Meanwhile, a Joan Jonas survey is set to open in September.
While Enwezor’s programming has been praised, he has weathered some challenges over the years at Haus der Kunst. According to the New York Times and other outlets, the museum experienced funding gaps beginning early in his tenure. Last year, there was a strange situation in which a personnel manager attempted to coerce staff members into joining the Church of Scientology. More recently, Bernhard Spies was appointed commercial director to run the museum on an operational basis alongside Enwezor’s creative leadership. Spies and chief curator Ulrich Wilmes will lead the Haus der Kunst in the interim, until a new artistic director is named.
“There is never an ideal time to leave but I am stepping down when the Haus der Kunst is in an artistic position of strength,” Enwezor said.
“There is never an ideal time to leave but I am stepping down when the Haus der Kunst is in an artistic position of strength.” — Okwui Enwezor
Enwezor was one of the few black museum directors leading a major art museum that is not culturally specific. Franklin Sirmans who became director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2015 is another. Belinda Tate heads the Kalamazoo Institute of Art in Southwest Michigan.
The nature and extent of Enwezor’s health issues were not elaborated upon in the statement. It is unclear whether he is in a position to accept another opportunity. Many institutions would benefit from the expansive lens Enwezor brought to the Munich museum and the numerous exhibitions he has presented around the world. In the United States, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are all seeking a new directors. CT
TOP IMAGE: Okwui Enwezor on March 6, 2015, at press conference for All the World’s Futures at the 56th Venice Biennale. | Photo by Joerg Koch, Getty Images
The co-author of “Contemporary African Art Since 1980,” Okwui Enwezor has edited several exhibition catalogs and penned scholarly essays for many more. “All the World’s Futures: 56 International Art Exhibition” documents the 2015 Venice Biennale. Recent volumes include “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” and “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi.” Enwezor is also among the contributors to “Jason Moran,” the first publication to explore in-depth the practice of the pianist and composer cum visual artist. The catalog accompanies Moran’s first museum show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
May 9, 2014: Okwui Enwezor and pianist/composer Jason Moran at the Frieze New York Art Fair, where the two were in conversation. | Paul Zimmerman, Getty Images
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