PRINT April 2008

Venice Volleys

WHETHER POSITIVE or negative, generous or mean-spirited, there are three basic types of opinion: informed, uninformed, and misinformed. And then there is disinformation, the deliberate attempt to confuse an issue by toying with the facts and mixing them with covert falsehoods.

Regrettably, I am forced to intervene again to correct the gross distortions of fact and groundless inferences based on those distortions that litter the replies Francesco Bonami, Jessica Morgan, and Okwui Enwezor have made to my comments on their reviews of the 2007 Venice Biennale, so that readers may develop their own informed opinions on the exhibition based on what I actually did, said, and intended and on the variety of work the show actually contained.

Oddly, one of the chief complaints lodged against me by all three is the length and thoroughness of my rebuttal of the unfounded assertions made in their initial attacks (which, incidentally, was not longer than my catalogue essay, as one of them hyperbolically maintains). Apparently they think it is unsporting for anyone to protest such misleading declarations being paraded before the reader in the guise of settled professional consensus. Furthermore, they seem to believe there is an unwritten law that a subject should not talk back to his or her critics, coupled with a special dispensation for art writers that excuses them from the requirement that all journalists have to be accountable for what they say and capable of verifying their claims. I know of no such law and no such dispensation, but I do know that omissions, inaccuracies, and malicious statements that enter into the record become the truth for those provided no basis for doubting them. I also know that Artforum has had a long history of debates being pursued via letters to the editor, and, while I am thankful that tradition is still honored, I wish that this debate might have transpired on a higher plane.

Although it lives up to his familiar and, I must finally concede, inimitable, standards, Bonami’s reprise of “Vesti la giubba” is too buffoonish to require rebuttal. That said, his version of the libretto does contain a significant abbreviation of the complex story of the Biennale’s prize-giving.

After chiding me for correcting Morgan’s reduction of my curatorial activity to a handful of my MoMA shows—he should be angry with her for making it necessary—he writes, “[B]ut, strangely, he forgot to mention that one of this year’s Golden Lions was awarded for the first time, by the jury, to an art critic. And the winner was . . . Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, with whom Storr had in the past some diverging opinions on Gerhard Richter’s work. Buchloh’s award was not only a new feature of the Biennale but also a signal moment in its history; nevertheless, Storr preferred to edit out this highlight from his own personal achievements in order to concentrate the fire on ‘us’ (Jessica Morgan, Okwui Enwezor, and me).” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess.

For what it’s worth, I also left out that on my recommendation alone Malick Sidibé was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, the first time a photographer has been awarded a Golden Lion for photography (the Bechers got it for sculpture!) and the first time a Golden Lion has gone to an African artist—also, as Bonami notes of the critic’s award, “a signal moment in [the Biennale’s] history.” The matter at issue is this: While it is true that no Golden Lion has previously been given for criticism, lesser awards have gone to art writers in the past, starting with the very first Biennale in 1895. From 1938 until 1960 there was official recognition of critics who wrote about the Biennale, and in 1948 Umbro Apollonio notably won such an award. In 1993 David Sylvester was awarded the Giulio Carlo Argan Award for Criticism. Against some resistance at the Biennale, I returned to those precedents, and did so explicitly to draw attention to the crucial importance of critics and historians in the process of making art’s meaning. The outcome should demonstrate that I am not into coterie politics, nor am I in the habit of tampering with juries. Of course, I was well aware that the people I selected had views differing from mine—indeed, I chose them precisely to avoid imposing or ratifying my own positions as already expressed in the exhibition—and I expected that they might favor someone with whom I disagree. Contrary to Morgan’s suggestion that I “abhor discourse,” I thrive on it as well as on open and serious debate. I have learned from worthy adversaries and respect them accordingly. Buchloh is such an adversary, and he deserved the honor bestowed on him. The same cannot be said of Bonami.

As for Morgan, and the claim cited above, with apologies to the reader, I find myself again obliged to return to recitation mode and say that I have taught art history and theory in universities for more than a decade, notably at the City University of New York Graduate Center and then at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where from 2002 until 2006 I held the first chair at that institution specifically devoted to modern art after 1945, a post now occupied by Thomas Crow. Moreover, I first read Fanon, Lukács, Benjamin, and Brecht in the late 1960s, and Barthes, Bakhtin, Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Lyotard, Said, et al., starting in the early 1980s. Furthermore, as anyone who has read me will be aware, I have turned to some of these thinkers in my own writing. Indeed, some of my belle-lettristic colleagues have scolded me for being too theoretical, too political. Once again, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Regardless, I believe that theory is a tool, not an end in itself. In that I concur with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who in an interview with me said, “The theory in the books is to make you live better and that’s what, I think, all theory should do. . . . I don’t want to make art just for people who can read Fredric Jameson sitting upright on a Mackintosh chair. I want to make art for people who watch The Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown, La-Z-Boy chair.” Like Felix, I, too, want to reach people at both extremes and in between. That means theory must be digested and metabolically integrated into what one thinks and says, so that—to borrow Barthes’s formulation—the words one employs “desire” the one who reads or hears them. A theoretical approach should not be showcased merely to boast that one is up to date on the syllabus. Name-dropping authors or studding texts with jargon and branded concepts is not argument. Criticism is not catechism. I am for using discourse to lead to new experiences and new understanding. That said, I abhor the abuse of discourse in any form for any reason, but especially when the goal is to squelch or skew debate for the sake of professional maneuvering.

On a related score, I am reminded of John Cage famously wondering why everyone in his college class had to read the same book when obviously it would be better if they all read different books. Mindful of Morgan’s observation that “many of the artists who participated in [Storr’s] exhibition are deeply engaged in [discourse]” but also of Cage’s comment and the spirit in which it was made, I would point out that in creating the reader that accompanied the Biennale catalogue I asked the artists in the show to submit texts that were important to them in some way, stipulating that, contrary to current expectations in our field, they were free to choose any type of writer or writing they wished. Naturally, some did choose discourse, as it is academically defined, but many others chose short stories, poetry, scraps of classical philosophy, religious meditations, and so on, thereby enlarging the discourse’s scope, as was my goal. Given her desire to be close to the creative process, I trust Morgan will follow up on the bibliography those artists have graciously provided her.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s attempt at damage control reveals that even now she has read little or nothing I have written, including the catalogue essay and entries for the show under review. Two charges in particular make this clear and expose the mechanistic nature of her critical method—and its intellectual laziness.

First, in response to my reference to paired presentations that articulated concepts behind the show—pairings she neglected to consider when first dismissing it but now claims to have been aware of all along—Morgan accuses me of “dualism” and “binary” thinking (I suppose because both these words have the common denominator of two). This is utterly sophomoric. Dualistic or binary thinking is based on the nature of antithetically coupled terms, as in an either/or proposition. Putting two works that share some of their many characteristics side by side for partial comparison and reciprocal enhancement in no way makes such an assumption. Rather, it is a heuristic device whose specific value is qualified by the context of the exhibition as a whole. When these correspondences are woven together by the spectator in space and over time—weaving is the primary metaphor of the catalogue essay—they create a fabric that resists dualistic and binary thought at every stress point.

For example, juxtaposing Valie Export’s performative video installation on language as visceral utterance (captioned “The Pain of Utopia”) with Dmitry Gutov and David Riff’s sound piece comparing English and Russian translations of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844—a poignant post-Soviet, neo-utopian recuperation of the Hegelian Marx—was hardly an exercise in dualism. Dialectics, from which other terms emerge, yes. On that topic I would be curious to know what discourse maven Morgan thinks of Hegelian Marxism and its role as the predicate for Lukács’s theory of reification, or does she consider such things the conceptual equivalent of the “insiderish connoisseurship” that she so ardently objects to when speaking of the latent content and correlation of visual forms of thinking, also known as paintings and sculptures?

Moreover, the show’s explicitly antidualistic title, which Morgan found so problematic (apparently without parsing it), disputes her charge from the outset, though by now she should find that title “cringe-inducing” simply because it must remind her of the net of blind suppositions and twisted rationalizations in which she trapped herself.

Second, regarding Morgan’s contention that my protest against her misrepresentations of correspondences between Gerhard Richter and El Anatsui, Ellsworth Kelly and Marine Hugonnier is evidence of ideological or methodological “formalism,” I can only recommend that she consult the essays I have written against Clement Greenberg and his school of thought (Rosalind Krauss included). While she is doing that, readers can check the catalogue for themselves to see if the mention of Hugonnier’s critique of West Bank modernist architecture and her use of Palestinian newspapers is “merely” formalist, or if my critique of formalist readings of El Anatsui and Minimalism is really the opposite. That my two books on Richter have been anything but formalist should belie this nonsense in his regard. That Kelly, about whom I have also written in depth, is a formalist should make Morgan think twice about using a designation with such complex meanings and history as a one-dimensional epithet to get herself out of a jam. More could be said—especially about Morgan’s opening gambit that the reason I could not accept the errors of my ways and the rightness of her views was gender-based. They used to say one should “take it like a man,” but in a move that trivializes feminism, Morgan inverts that macho admonition to argue that I can’t take it because I am a man. Charity dictates that I stop here.

I have reserved for last my comments on Enwezor’s part in this exchange because his remarks constitute an exceptionally devious and shameful perversion of “discourse” and because they might actually affect the future of the Biennale, which, despite its failings as an institution, I persist in believing can be salvaged from the mismanagement that plagued it under ex-president Davide Croff and his deputy, Renato Quaglia. I will simply sidestep the mound of invective Enwezor has thrown at me and address the substantive untruths laced throughout it, while spelling out the unmistakable rationale behind all his words.

Three lesser matters need to be disposed of at the outset.

First, how Enwezor became a specialist on what is and is not possible at the Biennale and at Venice’s Institute of Architecture (IUAV) I am unable to say. Perhaps a protégé at IUAV helped him out. But insofar as the question of models on which he sounds off is concerned, the facts are these: (i) planning on models began six months before I arrived in Venice, where I spent another four months working on them; (ii) the Biennale would not pay for them nor for the rented space in New York in which I experimented with various exhibition layouts; (iii) of course IUAV could have made models, but it did not make them, nor did anyone ever raise the issue, because, so far as I am aware, it had never occurred to anyone there, nor had it ever been done before for any other director, and should models have existed or been created, they would have had to travel back and forth across the Atlantic twice rather than just one way at considerably greater expense; and (iv) I gave the models to the Biennale’s architect, Manuela Lucà Dazio, in appreciation for her work on the project and in order that the Biennale would have what it had not had previously and would therefore be in a position to make available to future directors. Enwezor’s scornful sidewalk-supervising takes none of these issues into account. 

Second, my statement that animation had never before been given the attention it got in the 2007 Biennale is accurate. William Kentridge was given pride of place in the Italian Pavilion in 2005, but the medium itself was not featured by multiple examples and diverse techniques and themes as was the case this time, with works by Kara Walker, Joshua Mosley, Tabaimo, and Oscar Muñoz but also by Francis Alÿs.

Third, I was unaware that Harald Szeemann had gone to Africa specifically in preparation for his Biennale, and at this point I am disinclined to accept on faith anything Enwezor says. But having known Harry well and having collaborated with him on several projects, I apologize to his great spirit if I have mistakenly deprived him of credit for doing so. Beyond that I would only note that the part of the world his two Biennales highlighted was China, not Africa. More important, until 2007 no successful effort was made to bring the representation of African art into the core areas of the Biennale in any substantial quantity or variety, although individual African artists have participated in various exhibitions, and Georges Adéagbo did receive an honorable mention for his participation in 1999. The key distinction at issue in the case of the Biennale’s layout—as in cultural formations generally—is that of center and periphery. Nowhere in my initial response to Enwezor did I say that the “2007 African pavilion was the first such exhibition included as part of the Biennale,” as he states in his most recent letter. That is not an “opinion” but a patent falsehood any reader can fact-check for him- or herself. I would also stress that, contrary to the impression Enwezor gives, other than the two Biennale-affiliated exhibitions mounted by the Forum for African Arts in Venice over which he and Salah Hassan preside, of recent date there has been formal participation by Kenya (2003) and South Africa (1993 and 1995), as well as inclusion of the collateral exhibition “Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale,” organized by the Museum for African Art in New York (1993), a project accorded official Biennale status equal to that received by the Forum’s shows, with all of this, of course, augmented by the regular participation of Egypt in the Giardini. The Forum is not the only portal for artists and curators from the continent and never has been.

Now to the crux of the dispute and of Enwezor’s campaign of disinformation, for that, without question, is what he has been up to from the start and the cause he has twice used Artforum’s pages to further. I will begin with his claim that the first letter he and colleague Salah Hassan sent to me—and circulated within his organization—contained no bid to “control discourse” concerning Africa at the Biennale, by quoting in detail key paragraphs in it:

Allow us now to stress the following points: 
First, in light of the above-mentioned facts, we see your call for proposals as an attempt to short-circuit the work of the Forum for African Arts, and its Africa in Venice project to establish an institutionalized platform which gives access to African artists, through an African initiative. . . .
Second, your call for proposals for an African pavilion exemplifies the stereotypical attitudes and condescending assumptions people have about Africa. . . .
Third, we find your call for proposals particularly infuriating given that Africa in Venice has been about building institutional capacity, establishing lasting relationships with other institutions, and providing African artists with access to an otherwise closed system. It is unethical for the Venice Biennale to suddenly change its own rules in order to take control over other people’s initiatives and hard work. . . .
[Earlier in the letter the authors write: “Over the years, the Forum’s Africa in Venice projects have received funding that surpasses one million dollars from major foundations such as the Ford Foundation, Prince Claus Fund, and AFAA, among many other institutions and individuals that sincerely believe in our mission and goals.”]
Fourth, the content of your call for proposals is a clear infringement on our intellectual property as clearly stated in the mission of the Forum and the goals of the Africa in Venice project and in all our publications in Venice. Our goals—clearly echoed in your call for proposals—have always been to offer an informed and critical analysis of work currently being produced on the African continent, and in the African Diaspora. Of equal importance is the mission of the Forum to encourage and support the work of African curators, which is why we always solicit proposals that are considered and adjudicated by a panel chosen by our organization. . . .
Fifth, the Forum for African Arts had already established its program in Venice long before your appointment as director of the Biennale. Even if we did not contact you previously about the African pavilion, one would have hoped that you would check the records in Venice and take the initiative to contact the Forum for African Arts on the matter of organizing the pavilion. It goes without saying that our presence in Venice has served the Biennale Foundation well, as all of our exhibitions there have been very well conceived, successfully installed, and critically acclaimed.
First, we call upon you to reconsider your call for proposals, to engage with Africa in Venice about the upcoming exhibition, and to consider the fact that Africa in Venice has already developed an exhibition proposal for the 52nd Biennale, to be curated by Dr. Chika Okeke-Agulu. . . .
Second, we wish to make clear that, in our call for engagement with you, we do not want to go through a call for proposals to be judged by a panel of experts, as mentioned in your posting. . . . The Africa in Venice [sic] has a stellar track record of exhibitions, and as mentioned earlier the members of the Forum’s board, which is responsible for soliciting proposals for exhibitions, includes some of the leading scholars, artists and curators in the field of contemporary African and African Diaspora art. For example, the board includes pioneering and distinguished African artists such as El Anatsui, the former Head, Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria; Ibrahim El Salahi, the Oxford based Sudanese artist; and Obiora Udechukwu, the Distinguished Professor at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY. It also includes some of the most respected scholars and curators in the field of contemporary African and African Diaspora arts such as Gilane Tawadros, founding Director, Institute for International Visual Arts in London; Koyo Kouoh, the Dakar based curator and art and cultural critic and former member of the jury of the Venice Biennale in 2003; Olu Oguibe, artist, art critic, curator and professor of Art and Art History, University of Connecticut; Marilyn Martin, Director of the National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa; and Tumelo Mosaka, curator and art critic at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. . . . 
Our record of collaboration and engagement with scholars of all backgrounds, including you, is very clear. . . .
Yet, one thing we will never do is to sit back and let anyone undermine a project that we have worked tirelessly on, and for which we deserve due credit and respect. The time for viewing African art and artists with condescension has long since passed; so too has the time for whimsical charity and paternalistic benevolence towards Africa.

Even edited to eliminate the various sidebar feints and jabs, the high word count is necessary to demonstrate the pattern of bullying and bluffing that is Enwezor’s modus operandi, and to underscore that I was not the first to write long. I would also repeat at this juncture that Olu Oguibe, singled out by Enwezor as a board member, publicly endorsed the Biennale call of 2007. Furthermore, among the board members and corresponding experts who are referred to above, Marilyn Martin told me she was never consulted about the Forum’s business after its creation, and El Anatsui recently told me that he had rarely if ever heard from them either. As I said in my last letter, it would seem that for all intents and purposes the Forum is run by fiat by Enwezor and Hassan. It was not the board that cried “encroachment” when the Biennale announced an open competition in 2007 and not the board that continues to do so now—it is the Forum’s virtually autonomous cofounders. For whom, then, do they speak? Wherein lies their legitimacy as the go-to guys for non-Africans seeking insight into the matrix of African art, artists, and curators? On what basis should they be accepted as the perennial arbiters of the art of an entire continent for an institution whose directorship changes hands every other—or at most every four—years?

As for Enwezor’s reluctance to submit a proposal to a jury of his peers, let’s see how far that goes, but only after noting for a second time that in light of the protest elsewhere in the letter that I had ignored a project sent to me by the Forum, presumably the “proposal for the 52nd Biennale, to be curated by Dr. Chika Okeke-Agulu,” no such proposal was ever received by the Biennale, nor did one arrive at either of my two university addresses, nor at my home address, nor in my e-mail. Of the final selection process, Enwezor writes:

One learns from Storr—like Mr. Kurtz in his lounge suit, lolling in the sun like a well-fed crocodile on the banks of the Congo—his great restraint from playing any of the instruments in the ensemble (the invited jury) that selected the artists in the African pavilion for him. He tells us that he played absolutely no role in the selection, except as conductor—making arrangements, issuing invitations, and packing the room with black experts (both from the motherland and from the diaspora), while observing the deliberations with a disenchanted objectivity. How a private collection acquired wholesale from the estate of the German collector Hans Bogatzke can represent his vaunted idea of access for African artists and curators in Venice remains mystifying. . . . To compound the bad faith, of the three pavilions he promoted to the overlords at the Venice Biennale, the African pavilion was the only one for which an open call was made. For Turkey and India, no such call was deemed necessary.

The tangle of innuendo and deliberately misleading statements in this passage is astonishing by itself, but the vile neocolonialist tropes that are deployed taint the whole narrative with race-baiting poison.

Fact: As Enwezor well knows, all invitations to independent nations go to their official cultural representatives who then pick the curatorial entity or team. There was no jury for India or Turkey or any other country, because the Biennale has no role in identifying candidates in such situations. The African pavilion was not national and therefore it was necessary to establish a transparent procedure for selecting a curator or curators. By far the best solution to that problem was an open competition. Fact: The jury did not choose a German collection. Fact: The jury did not choose an African collection as such; it approved a proposal by two African curators who were working out of that resource but who, in the event, expanded their selection well beyond it. Fact: I expressed concern during the deliberations about the focus on a single private collection—among the submissions there were two that hinged on such individual holdings—but the jury strongly believed that their choice (out of the thirty-seven proposals considered) represented an important precedent as an ambitious private collection of African art based in Africa. Furthermore, they felt that the collection was of high quality and that the curators who made the proposal could do the job well. Fact: That is the only substantive intervention I made. Fact: I never met Bogatzke, who died in 2001, and until the decision was made, I never met Sindika Dokolo, the Angolan-based, Congolese collector who built on Bogatzke’s choices. Nor have I had any contact with Dokolo since. The fix was not in. The artists were not selected by me or for me, as Enwezor crudely insinuates.

Now, let me introduce that jury, whose members did their job in good faith without expecting to be the target of such mudslinging. They were a distinguished group, several of whom had worked with Enwezor before and nevertheless chose, with eyes wide open, to participate in the process initiated by the Biennale: Ekow Eshun, artistic director of the ICA London; artist Lyle Ashton Harris; Kellie Jones, an art historian at Columbia University; Meskerem Assegued, founder and curator of the Zoma Contemporary Art Center in Addis Ababa; and Bisi Silva, an independent curator in Lagos, Nigeria, and co-organizer of the 2006 Dak’Art Biennial. And let me set aside Enwezor’s attempt to revive Conrad’s metaphor for empire run amok and drape me in its sinister tatters—remembering nevertheless that “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” Instead, I will simply ask how demeaning is it that he would speak of his peers as “instruments in the ensemble” of a white “conductor” and all of us in service to the “overlords” of the Biennale, as if the only relation art professionals of color could have to a Caucasian director was a subservient one, and how racist is it to assume that the only thing that such a director would want or imagine wanting was deferential men and women to do his bidding, rather than colleagues more knowledgeable than he to help him perform his limited function in this regard honorably and well? To whom is the most degrading rhetoric addressed? Who is he insulting? It can’t be me, since I have already been pegged as a romantic Afrophile and linen-clad bigot beyond redemption, further opprobrium thus being made redundant. No, he is quite explicitly showing his contempt for the “black experts (both from the motherland and from the diaspora)” who made the decision in 2007 and, by implication, every other curator and critic in the field who might conceivably have sat on a jury of his peers to judge a proposal actually submitted by him. Enwezor apparently thinks he has no peers and that anyone who might presume to be one is automatically a stooge of “the masters in Venice” previously referred to in the second of the two letters he sent to me rejecting the competition process out of hand.

Is this the manner in which the man who recently received the Agnes Gund Curatorial Award from Independent Curators International maintains the dignity of his profession, speaks to his colleagues, and furthers “the mission of the Forum to encourage and support the work of African curators”? Is this the public face the dean of academic affairs and senior vice president at the San Francisco Art Institute shows in a serious controversy over fundamental issues with his educational and curatorial counterparts? Is this how scurrilously low the dialogue of race is going to be brought by an influential figure in the arts the same year in which the first African-American candidate with a genuine shot at the White House has done everything in his power to raise that dialogue higher than it has been in several generations?

Of course, Enwezor’s Captain Queeg–like behavior would never have surfaced if only I, Kurtz, had used my ill-deserved power to name him and the Forum’s cofounder the Biennale’s official men-for-all-seasons in Africa. That is the bitter truth and the bitter irony of this dismal charade. When I failed to yield to pressure, Enwezor began a concerted effort to smear me and scare away others who might have the temerity to deny him the position of power broker he has consistently sought, not to mention his own privileged access to the exhibition system and the prestige and money that go with it—plus the opportunity to muscle his way into the next Biennale. In all likelihood, though, his strategy of divisiveness, defamation, and intimidation has killed off any chance that the Biennale will renew the offer to make free space in the heart of the exhibition available for an African pavilion since so much ugliness has resulted from the organization’s first attempt to do the right thing in the right place. I hope I am wrong, but if I am right, Enwezor must bear the lion’s share of the blame.

And still Bonami, Morgan, and Enwezor have almost nothing to say about the work in the show when it does not serve as ammunition in their dispute with the curator. And still the artists must wonder: Why?

—Robert Storr
New York

Francesco Bonami responds:

“The Nietzschean prophecy come true: art killed by resentment.”
—Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (2007)
—Francesco Bonami

Okwui Enwezor responds:

Though I could have predicted that my response to Robert Storr’s letter to the editors of Artforum concerning my review of the Fifty-second Venice Biennale would be tantamount to waving a red cape at a raging bull and would elicit yet another lengthy reply of meandering incoherency, self-justification, and posturing, I wish our debate had remained focused on the ideas and issues surrounding his lackluster exhibition and avoided the tack it has taken. Clearly, we are no longer in the realm of ideas, but have entered the field of trash-talking—what in Nigeria we would call Bolekaja criticism.

The readers of Artforum by now have surmised that the nature of this jousting has pretty little to do with my overview of last summer’s Grand Tour extravaganza, in which the Fifty-second Venice Biennale received a mild three-paragraph mention. Rather, Storr’s animus, directed at me with such virulence, has everything to do with expunging pent-up resentments unrelated to the essay I wrote in these pages more than eight months ago.

But, given the seriousness of his charges and assaults, they do require scrutiny. Bullies have a pathological need to crave sympathy, as well as the tendency to turn themselves into victims of conspiracy, as people whose honor has been wounded by conniving forces, while all the time remaining in denial of their thirst to rule the brood of peers and colleagues. Everything about the exchanges thus far points to this tendency, which has apparently compelled the curator/critic to take on, in mock outrage, all comers, including unnamed adversaries. In so doing, he displays all the grotesque manipulations of the bully as victim.

I shall confine myself, however, to the little sliver of ground left, to reflect on the idea of race as it is manifested in his current rejoinder [to Enwezor’s previous letter in Artforum, February 2008]. Indeed, the rest of my remarks will focus on his several references to race, starting with this one: “The tangle of innuendo and. deliberately misleading statements in this passage [of Enwezor’s letter] is astonishing by itself, but the vile neocolonialist tropes that are deployed taint the whole narrative with race-baiting poison.” Perhaps the deeper vicissitudes of this reference might lead to greater clarity as to what suddenly is no longer a subtext, but the very text of Storr’s endless peroration.

By reducing the broader point of my review concerning the curatorial merits of the Fifty-second Biennale to this nonsensical claim, and attaching my response to his earlier letter [Artforum, January 2008to it, he could not resist the disgraceful opportunism inherent in his invocation of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president as a way of distinguishing the good Negro from the bad Negro. What manner of discourse would lead us down this path of race-obsessed thinking, in which he has tailored for me a worthy outfit befitting my lowly status as an unworthy critic? Well, sir, how should the critic speak then? What in the world do you propose should be his mode of address?

Of course, because I am black and African, the only outcome I could expect for my critique of the approach taken to usurp the role the Forum for African Arts in Venice has played since 2001 is the racialization of that critique. But the larger point remains this: In assuming for himself the grandiose position of being the one to rescue Africa from the margins, is Storr suggesting that no criticism of his approach can be brooked? I bring this up only to show how, like the figure in William Kentridge’s great film Monument, 1990, he has deposited the shrouded continent on a pedestal and, like Soho Eckstein, waited for the right moment when the lights are on so he could, in one bravura gesture, reveal his triumph and deal the coup de grâce to the unfortunate pretenders hoping to usurp the position of the director. But if the race card was not being played, one could certainly ask why all the members of the jury for the selection of the African pavilion were “black.” Does it have something to do with Storr’s buffering himself from criticism? Why the repeated reminder that an African—Malick Sidibé—received the Golden Lion? The suggestion obviously points to the fact that there was an expectation of points to be earned for making this selection, therefore turning it into an empty gesture, a studied practice in mere politics. But when one considers that Sidibé won the Hasselblad award for lifetime achievement in photography a few years earlier, it becomes clear that Venice was rather late in the recognition game.

The pattern of racial obsession continues down a narrow and murky road with regard to Barack Obama, when Storr asks, in another parry, “Is this how scurrilously low the dialogue of race is going to be brought by an influential figure in the arts the same year in which an African-American candidate with a genuine shot at the White House has done everything in his power to raise that dialogue higher than it has been in several generations?” But who was invoking race? Who is constructing this binary white-or-black discourse? Being African does not have to be racialized, needn’t undergo what Frantz Fanon referred to as epidermalization. It is only such reductive inference that could lead to introducing Obama into a discourse where he and his successful campaign surely do not belong. How the graceful presidential candidate fits into this narrative is beyond me. But Storr is onto something here: For him, revealingly, race is a trope of objectification; thus Obama is reduced to his race, his African-Americanness. Nay, his blackness singles him out, and that is the reason Storr wishes to equate his presidential candidacy with racial healing, allegedly achieved by Obama’s sheer ability to raise the discourse of race to a higher plane. I am obviously bad at such discourse because I equated Storr’s African obsession with Afrophilia and neocolonialism?

In any case, since Storr’s lengthy reading list contains both Joseph Conrad and Fanon, it is important to note that both authors have endured long careers of interpretation. I want to reflect here on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s masterful deconstruction of Conrad’s celebrated novella in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (1977), and perhaps see what lessons we can draw from the writer’s still resonant reading. Before Achebe took his critical scalpel to peel off the lush skin of the great writer’s hallucinatory prose, Conrad had been read uncritically as the great stylist of the English language. To wit, he was a certified critic of King Leopold II’s excesses in the Belgian Congo early in the twentieth century. Conrad was the perfect writer to tackle the subject of race in a way that would have appealed to the liberal imagination of European anticolonialists offended by the rapacity of the king’s profitmongering. But Achebe was to show that, behind Conrad’s numbing prose, designed to inoculate readers from detecting the fallacy of the writer’s intentions, was a devious and unmerciful view of Africans as unworthy subjects of history, and that the entire Heart of Darkness was replete with a type of psychological transference deposited in the persons of two Europeans, Marlow and Kurtz, to assuage Conrad’s own unresolved relationship to the noble savage. Achebe pointed out that the story of dehumanization running through the book had consigned Africans to the margins of the novella’s raison d’être—the European’s fear of otherness—in order to make all the greater showing of white spiritual descent into the heart of darkness, perversion, criminality, murder. Conrad’s tale was, in fact, about the moral disaster of whiteness. But nowhere in the novella was the trauma its African subjects endured explored, beyond description of the decimation visited upon them. In a nutshell, Achebe’s critique was to claim the right to knock Conrad off his pedestal and restore him to a level where we can better see the manner in which art can debase truth and the discourse of man. Storr’s solicitousness toward Africa—for which he has assembled a gallery of expert witnesses and roped in others to abet the crudity of his bald politics—is of precisely the same order as Conrad’s. Unfortunately, the clumsiness at playing impresario to Africa made him unaware of his ungraceful actions. But he chooses to adopt the stance of the proverbial bull in a china shop, leading him to run berserk on the pages of Artforum in hopes of some elusive salvation. Unfortunately, all the sordid detail is retailing at deep discount in these pages.

In recalling Achebe’s audacious critique of Conrad (which, by the way, earned him the enmity of many a distinguished English literature professor in the American academy), I must make it clear that Achebe’s argument was about a writer and a book and the ideas contained within the book. It was not a divisive critique designed to lower the discourse of race. Rather, it was written to elevate that discourse, to bring to it the historical seriousness and intellectual honesty the subject requires. Just as his critique of Conrad was not a slighting of the writer, my commentary on the Venice Biennale was no disinformation campaign against Storr. That is his specialty, something he particularly excels at (consider for instance, his continuous swipes at Davide Croff and Renato Quaglia, erstwhile president and managing director of the Venice Biennale, both of whom he routinely pillories with charges of mismanagement). Storr’s hamfisted vendetta does not interest me. In fact, throughout the summer of 2007, numerous press requests came my way seeking comments and interviews about the controversy surrounding the African pavilion. I declined all of them, including, specifically, a request to publish the letter from which Storr has quoted liberally, in a Web journal in South Africa. The letters I wrote with Salah Hassan were sent solely to Storr and to members of the advisory committee of the Forum for African Arts. To my mind, bringing that letter into this debate is pointless, as it serves no useful purpose beyond providing a crutch for trumped-up charges against my critical intentions. Though Storr quoted our letter out of context, by suppressing many parts of it, the intent of our writing was specifically to disabuse him of any sense of “innocence” in wishing to do good by Africa. Readers of Conrad criticism would have learned this from Achebe. I am not apologetic about writing him such a letter. But that’s beside the point, having nothing to do with my role as a critic. Here Fanon has a valuable lesson to teach us about the bounds of critical insurgency when it comes to rooting out the epistemological rot in colonialist discourse: Sometimes those who hold the reins of power are the last to realize that it is slipping from their grip, and Fanon reminds us that the colonized is never granted independence, but that history requires him to seize it. Enough said.

—Okwui Enwezor
San Francisco