PRINT Summer 2019


Isaac Julien in collaboration with Mark Nash, Das Kapital Oratorio, 2015. Performance view, Arena, Central Pavilion, Venice, May 8. From the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

FOR ME, few things in art have ever been so enjoyable as a conversation with Okwui—no doubt because however benignly one of our discussions began, it would inevitably end up, as he told me once while bursting out in laughter, “really trying to get to the bottom of things.” In part, I am certain, this pleasure arose just by virtue of a good relationship between editor and author; we worked together on different texts at Artforum and elsewhere for the better part of ten years. Yet the beauty of Okwui’s exhibitions was always underlined and enhanced by how their sweeping ambition—whether to “crack the kernel of globalist discourse,” as he would remark to me of his 2002 Documenta’s articulation in the dimming afterglow of biennial culture’s inception during the previous decade, or, more recently, to reorient our understanding of postwar art beyond the privilege of the Western perspective—was readily matched by him in any ordinary conversation between two people across a table. 

Looking back at Okwui’s Venice Biennale in 2015, one should perhaps take it as a matter of course that the design of his exhibition catalogue would open with so many pages from Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and attending manuscripts. Even the most abstract and ambitious ideations for culture and its possible correspondences with the organization of society (however much in need of reinvention such structuring might be in Okwui’s estimation) were still, at base, the stuff of the handwritten word and personal notebook. The large-scale exhibition continued to revolve around setting a sense of the stakes for the individual subject, to whom his curatorial endeavors were always addressed. In fact, the intentions of Okwui’s curatorial practice—a backdrop for his very person—might well be summed up by a fundamental observation he made when explicating the basis for his Venice exhibition: that “the making of art is the making of meaning,” and, moreover, when it comes to the organization of grand shows, “the world is hungry not only for insight into the contradictions of the human condition, but for meaning.” Okwui’s excellence as a curator, and as a person, partly rested in how he recognized the necessity of looking beyond the circumscribed realm of art to examine the conditions of its production—technological, economic, political—if one was to magnify the meaning of art in turn. As he would observe on numerous occasions about his various projects the world over, extending exhibition making’s purview in such ways would, by exceeding traditional models, force a reaction from viewers, for whom there could be no sidelines. Yet here was another crucial link of the abstract and immediate in Okwui’s project: Whatever created in each viewer a sense of personal import and gravity also became the basis of shared experience meant to be debated in common. By Okwui’s compass, art could provide, if desired enough, that wanted and elusive harbor for a public sphere.

It is in this public vein, however, that Okwui’s project across the decades seemed always to contain the seed of emergency. Even in his earliest writings, he conveys an atmosphere of extreme contingency: Things are in “transition,” “unfinished,” “unrealized.” And, of course, they always are. But Okwui is uniquely important as a figure for surmising and capturing in his work the first glimmers of globalization and world realignments—manifested by the end of apartheid, the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the change of production models and temporality—while taking note of how exhibition making globally was nevertheless continually at risk of settling back into familiar patterns and losing its sense of just how radical and subtle such shifts were. (Here, for me, the comparison that comes to mind is Proust’s frequent designation as the last writer of the nineteenth-century and the first of the twentieth—provocative for never accommodating either paradigm as being wholly natural, by virtue of the writer’s almost intuitive ability to place them in relation.) Sifting through our correspondence, I am struck by the fact that as early as 2002, Okwui was warning that the most inventive and critically engaged strands of global curatorial practice were already waning due to a general aversion to larger questions for art within the social landscape. The chance to create meaning in art was already, and always, resting in the balance.

It also comes as no surprise that someone so aware of such contingencies—and so capable of situating art within the linguistic structures of larger society in order to turn them to his own ends in a spirit of possibility—should have been a poet. Or that he would have readily employed the literary-theoretical framework of créolité to describe a “continuous rewriting of models of identity” that would, as he said with implications for his own approach, not be “oppositional but . . . open contestations of global culture.” Language and its social structures could be the subject of play, encompassing numerous meanings and alternatives. But here again one returns to the person. I sometimes think Okwui was capable of contemplating so many futures because he was, after all, someone of so many pasts: Nigeria, New Jersey, Nuyorican, New York, and so on. Créolité would have a special resonance for someone containing all those histories within his person, opening for the rest of us so many paths from here.

Tim Griffin is Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.