PRINT Summer 2019


Cover of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 29 (Fall 2011).

THE EASE WITH WHICH, given the chance, he repeatedly accomplished what in retrospect seemed so obviously right and necessary as to be self-evident may have been received as a gesture of contempt by those who lacked the opportunity or the spine to have taken the initiative before him. But I know he did not intend it that way; he simply saw what needed to be done and did it: noticed that there was no venue for calling attention to the work of postcolonial African artists, and so started an art magazine that did; noticed that so-called international exhibitions were actually self-aggrandizing vanity projects for Europeans and their self-styled “white” American protégés, and so curated one game-changing, seriously international exhibition after another, each one pioneering new curatorial modes of presentation, in addition to supplying new and much-needed contributions to the common cause of aesthetic innovation from previously unexplored regions of the world, including African America.

Of course he made enemies of those he had inadvertently revealed as philistines. But even they were awestruck by the seeming ease with which he miraculously conjured into existence the wide array of original self-expression that drives art created out of desperation, the deepest and most reliable source of creative inspiration there is. So their fear of his apparently magical powers—his ability to wave his magic wand, abracadabra, and—POP!—materialize stunningly powerful, refined, and sophisticated works by invisible nonentities others had not even supposed to exist—lowered their derogatory sniping to subterranean levels until very late in the game, when he had upended so many entrenched art-world shibboleths that the dangers he presented could no longer be contained.

But by then it was too late. He had already redefined the mission of an art magazine, redefined the mission of a collecting institution, redefined the mission of Documenta, redefined the mission of the Venice Biennale, etc., and no backtracking was possible. After him, parading one’s ignorance of contemporary African American art, or South American art, or African art, or Indian art, or Middle Eastern art, or Chinese art was no longer fashionably elitist but rather was stupidly lowbrow. The stupidly lowbrow were not amused. And the tectonic platelets on which they squatted were shifting.

I knew of someone who had lived with multiple myeloma for fifteen years. I never thought of Okwui, or prayed for him, which I did very often, without recalling this. Despite this fatal illness, it was inconceivable to me that he would not live long enough to enjoy the eminence he had earned, or rest on the additional laurels that would have been bestowed on him as the full historical magnitude of his achievements became clear. He deserved the enjoyment and rest at least as much as he did the eminence and laurels. But battling the incessant attempts to take him down and discredit his achievements did not leave much time for enjoyment or to rest, and less still since those attempts multiplied as his illness worsened and his eminence and laurels increased. In the end, those battles wore him out, as they were meant to do; and the pervasively hostile environment in which he was trapped left him no recourse but to leave, prematurely, by a different exit, as he was meant to do—to seek rest and enjoyment in a completely different, equally unexplored region, where none of the stupidly lowbrow could pursue him.

He was too young to die, and there was nothing but evil and injustice in his death. But I could not rescue him as he had rescued me. I owed him that debt of gratitude, but I reneged on it. Instead I watched, horrified, from a distance as he gradually sank out of sight as his illness progressed, while systematic attempts—now in the workplace as well as in the press—to diminish and debase his long record of magnificent accomplishment accelerated. My timid words of encouragement and support, inhibited by my reluctance to breach his privacy, were not enough. I could think of nothing to say that would not have implied my acknowledgment that he was in mortal danger and that I was in mortal danger of losing him, an admission I could not bring myself to state to his face. The few punches I managed to land on his behalf in the press came too late to do any good. I want to believe that he knew nevertheless how much he was loved and revered, and that he took that knowledge with him to his new destination. 

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin. A major retrospective of her work opened last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and an iteration traveled to the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. The survey was scheduled to complete its run at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, but in December, in the wake of Okwui Enwezor’s resignation as director, the museum’s commercial director, Bernhard Spies, canceled it.