PRINT January 1999

World Report

Okwui Enwezor

Things could not have gotten off to a better start for Okwui Enwezor, recently appointed artistic director of the 2002 DOCUMENTA XI. From the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to the lefty weekly Der Spiegel, the usually reserved German press greeted the choice with enthusiasm. The latter chronicled the support for the “young visionary from Nigeria.” Kasper König, for instance—himself a perennial also-ran for the position—described the choice as “unbelievably” great.

The artistic director of the well-received Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 and organizer of a number of large shows in the US, including the Guggenheim’s 1996 “In/Sight: African Photographers,” Enwezor is by no means an unknown in the art world, but the thirty-five-year-old Nigerian-born curator’s CV is out of the ordinary. He’s a relative newcomer, and he came to visual art via the unusual route of political theory and poetry. In 1994 he founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and in 1998 he was appointed adjunct curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. What, then, are his aspirations for Documenta XI? “I would hope that my appointment could represent continuity in terms of the integrity and seriousness of Documenta, but also that it signals more attention toward the activities of my generation of curators. My duty is to make a Documenta that does not start by setting limits for itself. This will not be a project of special interests, nor will it try to appeal to those anxious circuits who never see the correlation between art, culture, politics, and history.”

The first non-European to organize an installment of Documenta, Enwezor will attempt to revitalize the flagging European megashow. Conscious of the increasing sense of crisis facing large-scale international exhibitions, he is searching for a more personal dialogue with the individual viewer. “To make people respond, it is imperative that Documenta be conceived in an intimate fashion, to give it the quality of being an intimate conversation, even though it may be with a million people.”

How is such intimacy to be produced? That no one knows, but Enwezor seems as up to the task as anyone. I was recently in attendance when he read from his own poetry in front of thirty people in a studio in Stockholm, a format he handled perfectly. A couple of weeks later I saw him work a room of eight hundred at the Cooper Union in New York to equal effect. Clearly, it’s hard not to feel inspired by Enwezor. But how will he perform in front of a million? We can only wait and see.

Daniel Birnbaum