PRINT Summer 2019


WE FIRST MET at Art in General in New York in May of 1998, on a panel titled “A Third Space: The Real eState of Things.” I don’t remember what our presentations were supposed to be about, but no matter: Okwui wasn’t down with the program anyway. When it came time for his ten-minute remarks, he began a languorous and unscripted thirty-minute discourse on the problem of the archive, the reception of artists from the Global South, and his views on exhibition making. He was a ray gun set to STUN, and the audience, other panelists, and I sat with rapt attention as he took aim. That afternoon he told a hilarious story about a conference where he’d lectured on a group of artists working in Africa, a collective he referred to as “Beento artists.” When his colleagues, eager to learn more about these unknown art practitioners, asked what country or tribal group they were from, Okwui feigned puzzlement. “No, not ‘Beento,’ it’s ‘been to.’” As in “been to London” and “been to New York.” That talk was classic Okwui. In 1998, just prior to his appointment as adjunct curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, and with the groundbreaking exhibition “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996 under his belt and Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002 on the horizon, he had the gravitas, confidence, and mordant wit of someone who had been in the game for much longer. He knew his chosen world often imagined itself expansive and embracing but was actually small-minded and conservative. But Okwui had made it his mission to enlarge the boundaries of the field and he was going to do it wearing impeccably tailored jackets, handmade shoes, and dashing neckerchiefs.

While I was very fond of Okwui, he could be extra, though never in a negative way. He just had an extraordinarily ambitious nature, one that colored his interactions with artists. In fact, sometimes he was more ambitious for you than you were for yourself. For example, one snowy day in February of 2001, not long after he’d been appointed artistic director of Documenta 11, he trekked to my Brooklyn studio to talk about the exhibition. At the time, I was working on a series of oilstick and coaldust text paintings that quoted from James Baldwin’s seminal 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” I had hung a few canvases for his visit, and as Okwui contemplated the work he began to imagine its place in the show. “Perhaps one or two paintings would be good?” I proffered tentatively. He roared with laughter. “Glennnnnn,” he said, drawing out the pronunciation of my name to an absurd length, “I was thinking you should make me an entire room of paintings!” This upsizing impulse was repeated when he invited me to create work for the 2015 Venice Biennale. Having seen a neon installation in my show at Camden Arts Centre in London, he asked if I could make a piece that could be placed “outside.” It was soon revealed to me that by “outside” he meant the facade of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, a location where my neon A Small Band, 2015, would cover the building’s logo, signaling to viewers the nature of the curatorial interventions that awaited them within.

I last saw Okwui in Munich about two weeks before he passed. Ostensibly, I was there to be an interlocutor for a curatorial project he was working on about art and trauma in America, but I also sensed I might be there to say my goodbyes. Okwui was having none of that. When I arrived at his room on the second floor of a quiet wing of Klinikum Schwabing, he was being wheeled out for a radiation treatment. A half hour later he was back, propped up on his bed with pillows and eager to begin what became a seven-hour discussion of the show’s premise and the artists whose work he had researched in relationship to it, punctuated with some kiki-ing about the foibles of the art world. He also gave me, from memory, a room-by-room tour of his magnificent El Anatsui retrospective, which was opening the following week at the Haus der Kunst (an exhibition that, because he’d been in the hospital battling cancer, he would not live to see). Only once during my visit, throughout which his partner Louise Neri and sister Maureen were a constant and comforting presence, did the gravity of his illness become apparent. As the day wore on, he began to experience sharp pains and I was sent to fetch the nurse. As she adjusted his IV and fussed over him with obvious affection, he apologized to me for “having to witness my suffering.” That was classic Okwui too: an elegant turn of phrase that transcended the immediate situation. In the end, it was not the painkillers or the hope of a miraculous cure that kept him afloat for so long. It was his loved ones, his curatorial and writing projects, and the artists whose work and ideas he cherished. Even as his body failed him, his mind was fully alive and engaged with all the things he still wanted to do. Yes, Okwui, I was sorry I had to witness your suffering, but I was also there to witness your passion, your intellectual rigor, and your bright spirit. 

Glenn Ligon is an artist living in New York.