How Okwui Enwezor changed the art world

The Wall Street Journal charts the ascent of the Phaidon author, from poet to the director of the Venice Biennale
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Okwui Enwezor, director of the 2015 Venice Biennale
Okwui Enwezor, director of the 2015 Venice Biennale

As well as being a best-selling Phaidon author Okwui Enwezor is one of the world’s most successful curators. As this recently published Wall Street Journal profile makes plain, Nigerian-born Enwezor is the first curator of his generation and the second ever to command two of Europe's most important artistic engagements —Documenta 11 in 2002, and now the 2015 Venice Biennale. Also, and perhaps more importantly, he’s the first African to direct either one.

Despite all this fame, Enwezor still has some cultural obstacles to overcome; as the paper’s Zeke Turner notes, the curator has to spell out his name a couple of times, when on the phone to Emirates airlines, in an attempt to locate his lost luggage.

It’s a neat observation, which goes some way to describing just how Enwezor has altered the international artworld. In a cultural sphere that prizes creative freedom and a global viewpoint, while concentrating on a handful of – often white – artists, operating in a few – mostly Western — cities, Enwezor’s perspective is, by dint of nationality, quite distinct. 

"Okwui is a unique character,” says his friend and collaborator, the British Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye, who is working with Enwezor on the plans for next year’s Biennale. "his experience of globalization and the way he sees the world have created who he is."

 

Okwui Enwezor, director of the 2015 Venice Biennale
Okwui Enwezor, director of the 2015 Venice Biennale

Yet it isn’t simply this African outlook that sets the curator apart. As the paper explains, Enwezor came to America from his West African home to study political science, yet he soon got mixed up in New York’s art scene, becoming both a poet and a habitué of Manhattan’s nightclubs. The intellectual and literary rigour of those early years, coupled with an easy manner when in an artsy milieu also sets the 50-year-old apart.

Fellow Phaidon author Hans-Ulrich Obrist, tells the WSJ that Enwezor “comes from this incredible background in literature. He's an extraordinary curator. He's also an extraordinary intellectual, a writer, a poet."

Since the mid 1990s, the curator has pursued distinct strands within his career: making a name for himself on the biennial circuit, in Johannesburg, Gwangju and elsewhere; taking on the  directorship of the Haus der Kunst in Munich while also working hard on “historically driven, encyclopaedic museum shows centred on topics such as African liberation movements in the 20th century, the arc of apartheid and the use of archive material in contemporary art.”

They’re pertinent topics, drawing together works by artist all too-often overlooked by other institutions. As the paper points out, “the Haus der Kunst will have already presented nearly as many major solo shows of black artists as the Museum of Modern Art in New York has in the past 20 years.”

 

Now the poet and curator is also moving into film production, snapping up the film rights to books such as The Trial of Jomo Kenyatta by Montagu Slater. “Life is too boring if all the great stories are about Europeans and Caucasians. It's completely stupid,” he tells the paper. “The world is bigger!" Perhaps one of those great stories could be Enwezor’s own. 

To read the piece in full go here; For greater insight into Enwezor himself, see our books, Life and Afterlife In Benin, and Defining Contemporary Art. Buy them from the people who made them, here.

 


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