PRINT November 1998


Carlos Basualdo talks with Okwui Enwezor

THE CURRENT GENERATION of curators has been profoundly influenced by two sometimes contradictory trends: the emergence of multicultural politics and the growing conservatism in the art world. In trying to reinforce the cultural implications of the former and provide a critique of the latter, Okwui Enwezor made the transition from poet to editor to one of the most articulate and exciting curators working today. In 1994, after thirteen years in the United States, the Nigerian-born, New York-based Enwezor founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, which he coedits with Olu Oguibe and Salah Hassan. As signaled by the multivalent signifier nka—the word means “art” in the Nigerian language of Igbo, “discourse” in the Cameroonian language of Bassa—the journal provides extensive coverage of art and theory, based on but by no means limited to issues concerning contemporary African art. In 1996, Enwezor cocurated (with Octavio Zaya, Danielle Tilkin, and Clare Bell) the well-received In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the same year he was appointed artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Titled “Trade Routes: History and Geography,” the fall 1997 biennial showcased the work of more than 160 artists from 63 countries and included a number of projects in South African newspapers and magazines, as well as on local television. In May, Enwezor was appointed adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Art institute of Chicago. —CB

CARLOS BASUALDO: When you came to the United States in 1982 you were a poet. Was Nka a transition point between your devotion to your writing and your work as a curator? How did you start the journal?

OKWUl ENWEZOR: Throughout the ’80s I felt that while multicultural issues were being discussed, that conversation never went beyond the black/white, majority/minority dichotomy of the West and the US. I thought the way to respond was to find a critical space to animate discussion around neglected areas, to begin to build a network through which values, agreements—even disagreements—about certain issues beyond those dichotomies could be reconstituted within a fluid space of practice. I thought contemporary African art could serve this role for us, to give further insight into the incredible transformations occurring within postcolonial cultural and intellectual structures.

CB: The title seems to imply a certain construction of African-ness, while in your work you’re always trying to confront such totalizing entities.

OE: Well, I think contradiction is part of the work I do. Contradiction is a process that allows me to reflect on my vantage point of living between worlds from a much more acutely felt structure of reference. When I talk about Africa, it’s not a question of totalizing—it’s rather the opposite. Nka could just as easily be “The Journal of European Studies.” In this sense, Africa is more an idea than a place. The idea allows us to explore the ramifications of a particular construction, so I’d rather see the contradiction as an opportunity to look forward and backward—as a way to accept that, in the order of things, one does not always know, but one can always reinvent the structure of one’s passage through a particular space and time.

CB: For South Americans, it’s almost a necessity to react against the label “Latin America” because there are so many clichés about Latin American sensibility that don’t account for local histories. But when we are in South America, because the countries are so isolated, we wind up supporting the notion. Is there any parallel between Latin America and Africa in this respect?

OE: Oh, absolutely. But one thing I’d like to point out is that this reaction is also one occasioned by anxiety—an anxiety about self-doubt and self-definition. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. But we must understand that, in reacting against this notion of Latin Americanism, or Africanism, one is not necessarily reacting against stereotypes—one is reacting against expectations. We’re dealing with the structures of institutions that for many years have had the upper hand in defining what African—or Latin American, and so on—means. We shouldn’t forget either how artists themselves are implicated in producing these clichés of identity. They’re very marketable.

CB: I’ve been reading the reviews of the Johannesburg Biennale recently, and I find it interesting that the biennial was amazingly well received internationally but attacked in South Africa—because you didn’t serve the “national” community. In that sense, you were trapped in the familiar mechanism in which the countries of the periphery strive for international recognition but on terms that are frequently provincial, even parochial.

OE: What became clear is that there is a very nationalistic sense of South Africa’s place vis-à-vis Africa. I wanted to deal with issues of modernity as an exchange, as a system of values and ideas—different ways of being in the world. South Africa had been isolated for so long, it was much more difficult for them to accept the fact that the world had moved a bit farther than where they were at that particular time. At the same time, South Africa was paradoxically one of the best places to stage such an exhibition, because the country is in the midst of experimenting with building a multiracial, multicultural society in every sense of the word.

CB: Do you think that the biennial made a difference in the sense of animating the discussion of these issues in South Africa?

OE: Well, it’s too early to tell. It’s easy to respond to the positive energy the biennial has gotten, but I’m very cautious about reading into the responses a confirmation of one’s own sensibility.

CB: I know you’re currently involved in a project in Sweden, provisionally titled “Mirror’s Edge.” That seems to be a far more poetic meditation on artistic practice.

OE: I think it’s possible, in the moment of globalization, to be totally contradictory about one’s own practice—to be able to say that one does not necessarily deny the idea of poetics as a condition for making an exhibition. I want to deal with the notion of doubt and fiction as part of contemporary artistic practice. If you look at the work of many artists today, you’ll see that there are no longer any grand ideas about artistic projects. I’m particularly interested in how the image functions under these conditions of doubt and fiction. I think the prime influence for “Mirror’s Edge,” believe it or not, is Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

CB: On the other hand, the exhibition you’re doing in Munich touches on a very political subject, the history of liberation movements in Africa.

OE: Yes. The show should give us an opportunity to explore certain notions, like Pan-Africanism and Negritude, that have been completely denied in some of the historical studies of modernity and, at the same time, open up a terrain to begin to deal with the image of contemporary Africa and the notion of memory. It’s a historical show, but one in which art, philosophy, documentary photography, film, and other elements will interact. It’s a very extensive exhibition.

CB: How do you see the role of a curator taking shape in these last, let’s say, twenty years?

OE: The opportunity to go beyond the mere presentation of art objects in a relational context is exciting, and the possibility of involving one’s own work along an interdisciplinary axis that allows you to engage with the production of meaning in so many realities is very liberating. I’m not curating exhibitions to be right or correct—I want to make exhibitions that contribute to ongoing discussions and perhaps pose new questions. And I think this is what interdisciplinary dimensions in curatorial practice could add.

CB: In your work, you emphasize the issue of collaboration, which is very important to our generation of curators. Why is it so important for you?

OE: For me, collaboration is a way to make one’s ideas transparent and to have an opportunity to renegotiate one’s position—not in terms of having one’s position confirmed, but to work from a position where your ideas or positions could just as easily be complicated. It’s also a way to produce a certain kind of density in an exhibition that otherwise might become overly simplified.

CB: Do you think collaboration will become the dominant mode of operating among curators of our generation?

OE: Well, I don’t want to collaborate for the sake of collaborating. I think if it’s a mode through which curators can see their line of thinking as a way of breaking down institutional structures, well, the more the better.

CB: After the generation of hero-curators—like Harald Szeemann or Pontus Hulten—we seem to be working today in a completely different mode. Collaboration is only one example.

OE: Well, I think a lot has changed—the demographics of many cities; the notion of the metropolis; the production of new identities and histories; the role of popular culture. Our generation of curators, I’d like to believe, sees all these possibilities as ways of producing new definitions of culture, given these various transformations. But I think that when you go back to the work of the generation you’re talking about, their exhibitions—as documents and references—continue to reverberate in our thinking about exhibition-making. The kind of utopianism that existed in their day, the moment of the counterculture movement, has passed by. Looking back, those days seem so energetic, so pure, so full of promise. However, I do not believe that curatorial and artistic projects from that period were politicized enough. The ’90s are another matter entirely. Everyone seems so self-absorbed and satisfied. America is lazy and fat at this moment. The economy is going very well; people are comfortable and complacent. So it’s largely up to us as curators to find ways of complicating our own practice—of being in a position to confront the limits of our own practices; to open ourselves up to other processes of thinking, and making, and moving in the world.