PRINT December 2009

Okwui Enwezor

Aretha Franklin performing at the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, January 20, 2009.


1 The inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama A year ago, my contribution to Artforum’s annual rite of taking stock of the immediate past ended with a wish to see the transformation of candidate Obama into President Obama. In that wish lay my hope for what Giorgio Agamben might call the coming American community—or, to use the terms favored by the candidate himself, for a more perfect and equal union. No event of this entire year, and perhaps no event for years to come, could rival the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as America’s first postcolonial commander in chief. It was a wondrous scene to witness: Americans, with the eyes of the world on them, both watching and taking part in an epoch-making event—the son of a Kenyan foreign student becoming the country’s forty-fourth president.

2 The King is dead, long live the King: the apotheosis of Michael Jackson An object of pitiless ridicule in the latter part of his life, Jackson was a hollow figure, haunted by demons of racial insecurity that left him much disfigured. But in death he was rediscovered as a peerless, charismatic artist whose exceptional gifts had seized and held the global imagination for decades. From Harlem to London to Beijing, throngs assembled and viral flash mobs formed—a spontaneous celebration that reasserted his singularity, radical difference, and exceptional cultural importance. Long live the King of Pop.

3 “Loud and tumultuous” and the wise Latina In the wake of Obama’s election, and in the context of the hysterical hard-right nativism it galvanized, we found ourselves refighting Reaganism’s revanchist culture wars—as exemplified by the media dustups following the arrest of Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a white police officer and the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The two events bequeathed to us a pair of phrases worthy of T-shirt immortality: “loud and tumultuous,” used by the officer to describe Gates’s umbrage at being arrested in his own home, and “wise Latina,” employed by Sotomayor to signal, as they say, her judicial temperament.

4 Harun Farocki and Rodney Graham (Jeu de Paume, Paris) This exhibition, curated by the inimitable Chantal Pontbriand, paired two artists whose critical sensibilities could not be more dissimilar. Nevertheless, it proved an engrossing, immersive experience. Arranged in a looping spiral of rooms and projection spaces, Farocki’s examinations and reworkings of cinematic conventions and his tweakings of avant-garde procedures played perfectly off of Graham’s deadpan, sophisticated-amateur approach to comedy.

5 “Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt” (New Museum, New York) Though cramped, as all exhibitions at the New Museum seem destined to be, this survey of Goldblatt’s photographs—encompassing black-and-white pictures from more than forty years ago and more recent large color images—was carefully selected by Ulrich Loock, curator at Fundação Serralves, where the show originated, and sensitively installed by curator Richard Flood. The tight arrangements allowed for focused comparisons across decades—permitting close readings—and never collapsed into a visual jumble.

6 Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) In recent years, Africa has been transformed into a veritable safari park for philanthro-tourism, with Bono, Brangelina, et al. leading the pack on missions of empathy and grating paternalism toward the long-suffering continent. Here, in response, is a sober African voice, an Oxford- and Harvard-trained economist who has put in time at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs (and who has a way with well-turned phrases, e.g., “Would the U.S. allow a rock musician to help fashion its healthcare policy?”). Moyo’s message: Cut it off. Africa needs investments, not charity.

7 “Irving Penn: Small Trades” (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) Curated by Virginia Heckert and Anne Lacoste, this exhibition—more than two hundred exquisite vintage silver-gelatin and platinum-palladium prints, all portraits of men and women in occupations that would soon succumb to an accelerating modernity—was an essay on photography and humanism. The gorgeous natural light of Penn’s makeshift studio renders his subjects alive to us, even if they come off looking more like ancestors than contemporaries.

8 Bruce Nauman, Steve McQueen, and Fiona Tan (US, British, and Dutch pavilions, 53rd Venice Biennale) At a moment when the business-as-usual model will not suffice, the art world’s failure of imagination with regard to our bleak economic times is glaring. This year’s Venice Biennale was sober and restrained. But these three pavilions (curated, respectively, by Carlos Basualdo and Michael R. Taylor, Richard Riley, and Saskia Bos) stood out, in my view, for the clarity of their exhibition formats and for the works presented within them. Each in its different way, and in reference to the current moment, subtly underscored the social and political valences of imagination.

9 “Visual Encounters: Africa, Oceania and Modern Art” (Fondation Beyeler, Basel) Twenty-five years after critical tongues were set wagging by the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” “Visual Encounters” took a lower-key approach to cross-cultural curating and the interpretive hazards it entails. The objects gathered in the handsome Renzo Piano–designed rooms struck aesthetic high notes and emanated restrained emotional power. Curator Oliver Wick used newly accessible research to attribute artworks to authors rather than to tribes, showing that he had learned from past sins of omission. The exchanges he facilitated among artworks, artists, formal and conceptual experiments, and contexts made this exhibition a rewarding experience.

10 Beirut Art Center, Lebanon, and Cinémathèque de Tanger, Tangier, Morocco Founded earlier this year by artist Lamia Joreige and curator Sandra Dagher, BAC has quickly become a magnet for serious curatorial experiments and a hub of critical discussion in a city with a shortage of contemporary art spaces. Likewise, the three-year-old Cinémathèque de Tanger, founded by artist Yto Barrada and housed in a beautifully restored Art Deco movie theater, is the only serious art-house cinema in the region. Its smart programming mixes classic cinema and recent experimental material from across the Arab world and beyond.

Okwui Enwezor is the editor and founding publisher of NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. He has served as artistic director for several prominent international exhibitions, including the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1997), Documenta 11 (2002), and the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008). Currently adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography, New York, his most recent book, Contemporary African Art Since 1980, written with Chika Okeke-Agulu, was published this year by Damiani Editore.