PRINT December 2006

Okwui Enwezor

1 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf) The last few years have seen an explosion of new postcolonial writing by sophisticated, confident young African writers. Adichie is a Nigerian writer justly lauded for her lucid, well-crafted novels. Half of a Yellow Sun uses the genre of historical fiction to unfold and illuminate the anguish of fratricide and social disintegration brought about by Nigeria’s civil war during the 1960s. Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), made her a writer to watch; this book establishes her as a contemporary talent comparable to Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Monica Ali, or Chris Abani.

2 Luc Tuymans, Alarm (Belgium) Long-simmering xenophobia has swept across Europe, bringing once-shunned anti-immigrant extremist parties into the mainstream. As Vlaams Belang, the far-right party of Belgium’s northern Flanders region appeared on the verge of making large gains in local elections, Tuymans and others organized Alarm, a tour de force of political and social protest and a work of moral courage. The simple yet powerful premise was for cultural institutions across Belgium to turn on their fire alarms and evacuate their buildings at 3 PM on October 5 for fifteen minutes. One week later Vlaams Belang polled strongly in the election but failed to take control of Antwerp. Perhaps the alarm bells will ring louder for the fire next time.

3 “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture” (Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York) This show debuted in Chicago last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art, then made stops in London and Berlin—but it arrived in New York this past fall as fresh as ever. “Tropicália” is curator Carlos Basualdo’s elegant essay on Brazil’s revolutionary creative period of the late 1960s, when avant-garde artists such as Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Lygia Pape, among many others, actively worked on the politics of form in music, visual art, design, architecture, and radical subjectivity. Basualdo extends the exhibition’s logic of horizontality by mixing and integrating different artistic genres in order to relay the democracy of its content.

4 “Fischli & Weiss: Flowers & Questions. A Retrospective” (Tate Modern, London) Since the 1970s this Swiss duo has created an oeuvre of strangely coherent heterogeneity. Tate Modern’s retrospective, organized by Vicente Todolí and Bice Curiger, brings together sculpture, film, video, and photography. Filling the institution’s capacious galleries, the exhibition explores questions of time, travel, consumerism, and mythology in works deploying humor and irony within rigorous conceptual premises, in veritable Fischli & Weiss fashion.

5 Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World,” Countdown with Keith Olbermann (MSNBC) In this season of partisan extremism, Olbermann uses satirical commentary to excoriate the excesses of the dumb political Right—in particular, baleful gasbags such as Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Many news shows have been complicit in shoring up the disastrous power of the Republican Party. Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” segment manages at least to provide good comic relief.

6 “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in association with the Met (and curated by MoCA’s Paul Schimmel), this exhibition of Rauschenberg’s highly inventive collage and mixed-media work from the 1950s and early ’60s was one of the best shows in recent memory. In piece after piece it became clear that Rauschenberg is not merely contemporary art’s poet of obsolescence but a figure whose creative influence—particularly regarding installation-art practices—is yet to be properly absorbed. He remains a pioneer.


7 “David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective” (Triple Candie, New York) Hammons is legendary for his style of public refusal, reticence, and shallow distance from conventional art-world celebration. One might view this absence as a carefully staged form of visibility, understanding Hammons’s stance as its own performance, a form of asceticism that stokes an ever-greater desire for his rare exhibitions. The recent “retrospective” of his work at Triple Candie provided a case in point: When Hammons declined an invitation to show at the nonprofit space, the directors went ahead and held a Hammons show anyway, making photocopy bootlegs of his work. Compare this to his appearance two years ago in the Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary African Art (in a section curated by Salah M. Hassan and Cheryl Finley). His weeklong sheep raffle, accompanied by music and dancing in the streets of Dakar, proved a radical mastery of public space and social reciprocity. Tombola du Mouton was easily one of the most memorable works of contemporary art I have witnessed.

8 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, “Of Mice and Men” When the trio who brought us the Wrong Gallery—Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, and Massimiliano Gioni—were asked to organize the fourth installment of the Berlin Biennial, there was no shortage of detractors who thought the exhibition would fall victim to Cattelan’s penchant for calculated practical jokes. They were wrong. “Of Mice and Men” was a serious enterprise: focused, beautifully installed, and dazzling in its settings in desolate, crumbling apartments and an abandoned Jewish school on the potholed, charmingly decrepit Auguststrasse. The curators guided viewers through spaces haunted by history, turning the exhibition into a tour of the bleak landscape that is Europe’s current state of mind. They proved that biennials are still places where curatorial intelligence and experimentation can reside.

9 Emergency Biennale in Chechnya Using the creative flexibility of the biennial format to convey Chechnya’s anational condition, curator and critic Evelyne Jouanno has taken a Duchampian approach, mounting exhibitions in multiple cities using nothing more than a few suitcases. Last year, in the biennial’s first incarnation, the work of more than sixty artists was displayed at Paris’s Palais du Tokyo, while Jouanno shipped duplicates of the art as well as new works in valises to other venues. This ever-changing exhibition—carving out an itinerary of transitory, endless, transformative solidarity and empathy, and providing a substitute for the perennial aid package—will finally be brought together in the ravaged city of Grozny, Chechnya, in 2007. Peace permitting.

10 The United Nations General Assembly (New York) For pure political theater, no stage in the world rivals the ritualistic annual meeting of the world’s heads of state and their coteries of diplomatic mandarins. With global affairs inflamed and in tatters, the political masters of the universe (Bush, Blair) use the stage to sing their Cassandra songs, while the opposition (Chávez, Ahmadinejad) wail their own arias of resistance to the suffocating imperium of America. The General Assembly remains a unique arena of global politics. Who can forget the dashing, nattily attired Yasser Arafat cloaked in revolutionary chic in his 1974 performance? Or the Hollywood-ready Fidel Castro in 1960? Or Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the lectern? This year brought us Bush on Iraq (again) and Chávez’s excoriation of American hyper-power. All this is nimbly presided over by the secretary-general-cum-ringmaster. No irony. Only a proper sense of occasion, with, of course, a stiff upper lip.

Okwui Enwezor is Dean of academic affairs and Senior Vice President of the San Francisco Art Institute; adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography, New York; and artistic director of the 2nd International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville, currently on view.