PRINT Summer 2019


El Anatsui, Second Wave (detail), 2019, offset printing plates, rivets, bottle caps, aluminum roofing sheets. Installation view, Haus der Kunst façade, Munich. Photo: Jens Weber.

NO LESS PAINFUL for coming after a long illness, the shock of Okwui Enwezor’s death produced a near-universal thought experiment: What would the art world look like today had he never existed? His expansive imagining disoriented the professionals and publics of art alike, to an extent with which we are still coming to terms.

Okwui was a famously big thinker, and yet one of the great pleasures of working with him was small and routine: discussing the news of the day over coffee. The way he talked politics made the usual liberal chitchat seem pale and provincial; he saw every situation as complex, marked by conflicting interests with long histories. A large part of Okwui’s singular brilliance was his awareness that individual and social identity are entangled. It is striking that most of the curators who enter the canon of exhibition making (Harald Szeemann being the model) are celebrated for the magnification of their individual sensibilities. Okwui, of course, had impeccable style—the neckerchiefs, the suits, the profound equanimity and humor—but the spirit that informed his curating was social, not quirky. His approach, his very presence in the room, raised questions: Who is more of the world? Who is entitled to see and represent it clearly? The burgher in Bavaria? The professor at an Ivy? Or a person who has moved through Nigeria, where he was born, and Johannesburg and the Bronx and Beirut and London and Munich? Okwui’s experience, by choice as well as by chance, was profoundly cosmopolitan, reflecting not the frequent-flying liquidity of capital flows, but an intimate acquaintance with a global social reality lived on uneven terrain.

Perhaps because of his understanding of politics as lived and local as well as theoretical and global, he met people on their own ground. Okwui programmatically opposed the form of gatekeeping he called “academic high-handedness,” in particular the “resistance from within the institutions of the West to other forms of knowledge.” He recognized that the authority on an artist might well be not a professor but a family member, a dealer, a curator, a writer, a collector, or a neighbor—or the artist herself. This respect for all sources of knowledge emerged from his genuine intellectual curiosity. He flew (and took the bus) to go look; he read; he picked up the phone; and he talked, as his many collaborators know. During the years of planning for Haus der Kunst’s “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” his name popped up on my cell again and again (several times a day during what he saw as the endless Bavarian holidays): He was calling to enthuse about a painting he had just seen at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, or about an artist roundtable I had shared; to ask a question about a 1959 exhibition; to argue for the cultural significance of nonaligned nations; to chide me (repeatedly) for my inability to appreciate Picasso’s 1951 Massacre en Corée (Massacre in Korea). His engagement was collective as well as one-to-one, as befit both his own politics and the scale of his projects, and the concentric circles around Okwui extend and embrace a generation of younger people who worked with him and went on to become significant artists, teachers, curators, historians, and writers.

We need only consider Okwui’s unrealized exhibitions “Postcolonial” and “Postcommunist” to know the measure—disciplinary and historic as well as personal—of what we’ve lost. The seed of “Postcolonial” is already present in his text for Documenta 11, which examined “liberation from within” through the lens of decolonization, in a manner insistently distinct from postmodernism in its emphasis on agency, its pitch toward the future. Okwui’s career had begun with Africa, but he refused to be confined to brokering African artists for the benefit of Western institutions seeking to “diversify.” Doing so would have been a source of power and an easy pleasure; he chose instead to look at the world from the viewpoint of those artists and to insist on the right to take in the West as the object of that gaze. “Postwar” depended on what remains a difficult idea for most people: taking seriously the existence—and, even more, the equal importance—of multiple perspectives, experiences, and positions around the world, and seeing them in relation to one another.

Because of his well-known grace and good humor, the pleasure he took in life and other people, Okwui was widely loved. Let us also remember that this love was neither constant nor universal. The many outraged reactions to his Documenta in 2002 and his Venice Biennale in 2015, and the government’s shocking slander of him at the end of his tenure at the Haus der Kunst, are also part of his history.Okwui was ahead of his time: Were critics really ridiculing Marxism four years ago when he had people reading Das Kapital in Venice? Were people really not ready for a global political art exhibition in Kassel? In his prescience, he remained, for someone who was such a central figure, fundamentally an outsider to Western power centers. There was genuine political force behind his ideas and the way he manifested them, a threat implicit in the subjectivity he championed and in the demand that, as he wrote, in order for new forms to emerge, the “weight of ‘canonical’ art history . . . first be shrugged off, let fall, gracefully, by the wayside.”

One person—even one as brilliant and electric as Okwui Enwezor—cannot change the world. He did, however, imagine something different and, what’s more, give it form in exhibitions that have significantly transformed our notions of what art is and can be. Only a person who himself lived the idea of the radical equality of all people and their self-expressions could have done so much. 

Katy Siegel is the Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University, NY; Research Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art; and a contributing editor of Artforum.