Okwui Enwezor on art, race and school uniform
As the late curator and Phaidon author is awarded a Special Golden Lion, we look back at his radical life and work
It must be both poignant and challenging to be working on an exhibition conceived by a curator who has recently died. That’s the situation Massimiliano Gioni and his colleagues at the New Museum in New York find themselves in, as they prepare their forthcoming show, Grief and Grievance. Subtitled Art and Mourning in America, the show (and accompanying catalogue) was conceived by the late poet, curator and Phaidon author Okwui Enwezor, shortly before his death in March 2019 at the age of 55.
This strangeness is compounded by the prescience and immediacy of Enwezor’s work. Having overseen both the 2015 Venice Biennale and equally influential Documenta exhibition back in 2002, Enwezor receives another laurel today, 1 September 2020: a posthumous Special Golden Lion award from the Venice Biennale, acknowledging his “visionary critical thinking which looked to the future, often anticipating it,” as the President of La Biennale di Venezia Roberto Cicutto put it.
Cicutto might be speaking generally, but his words certainly capture something of the New Museum’s forthcoming show and catalogue, which is a timely and urgent exploration into the ways artists have grappled with race and grief in modern America.
In the opening passages of Grief and Grievance, Enwezor contextualizes the USA’s volatile racial politics. “In 2013 the activist group Black Lives Matter was founded in direct response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin," he writes. "The group’s simple demand was not only about accountability for the spate of killings but also the systemic racism directed at communities of color. Black Lives Matter identified the condition of black grief as a matter of national emergency. President Obama issued a statement about Trayvon Martin, and in 2015 he travelled to Charleston, South Carolina, to give the eulogy for nine members of an African-American congregation shot dead in their church by a young white supremacist.
“The crystallization of black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance represents the fulcrum of this exhibition. The exhibition is devoted to examining modes of representation in different mediums where artists have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief. With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, recent years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”
Of course, Enwezor wasn’t just concerned with political art, and instead understood what was required of an individual in order to engage with new works, and understand their enduring importance. In this video, shot to accompany the publication of our 2011 book, Defining Contemporary Art, he argued, “There are a range of things that make works of art remain in the general imagination. In terms of the impacts of such works have had on the discipline of artistic production, what do younger artists refer to? Who do they look at? What sort of works do they pay attention to?”
“One has to remain constantly engaged, constantly open to new ideas, to the emergence of new forms, new techniques, new modes of display, new attitudes new strategies,” Enwezor went on, “and none of this can be predicted and that’s what makes the vitality of artistic production so exciting, so important and necessary.”
All that radical openness comes in handy. In our Contemporary Artist Series book on Sarah Sze, Enwezor questions the sculptor about the way she uses everyday objects, such as tooth picks, fans, or a fire extinguisher, in her large, detailed complicated work. Here’s his question, followed by her answer.
“Enwezor: What about your material, the things with which you build your sculptures? Very often they’re quotidian materials and mass-produced store-bought objects – whether material from hardware stores or office tools – that are culturally marked. When you’re transforming and translating the materials, is there a predetermined object language you want them to embody? What do you want them to add up to? Because it seems to me that the choices and selections you make in the use of each material implies a code.
“Sze: The first requirement for a material is the ability to intrinsically question how value is placed on an object, and how an object acquires value. To do that, I often choose objects that have low value – easily replaceable, mass-produced and with little individual identity. Secondly, the materials I choose are often fragments of a larger system; they’re parts to a whole, but in their new context they’re permitted to take on a different role, a hybrid identity where they recall their original identity but seem to perform a new one at the same time. In the context of a work, these materials are animated through the touch, through the relationships with the objects next to them, through this idea that as a collective they have a kind of ambition, but a fragile, newly found and absurd ambition. Hopefully, the intimacy is surprising, since their origins are fundamentally generic. Finally, material choices are made by how they signal behaviour: our capacity to collect, to lose, to remember, to understand, to own, to give, to value, to buy, to cultivate, to construct, to grow. They signal and move between all of these roles. I’m less interested in art and more interested in why we make art, and always have been. I like the idea that you might not be sure if a work is a present-day artwork or if it’s a leftover of our civilization. I’m interested in objects as present-day evidence of how we live. I remember a nice thing in your conversation with Rirkrit Tiravanija where he said that when he first came to Chicago and saw the objects at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Asian Gallery, he wanted to break the case and let them out, break them free.”
Though he was more used to turning attention towards important contemporary artists, Enwezor’s own aesthetic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. Indeed, it is the subject of his profile in our Fantastic Man book. The piece, which features in this collection of features from the acclaimed men’s style magazine of the same name, takes a look at the curator’s excellent dress sense.
“Growing up in Nigeria in the 1970s, he says he was influenced by the style of African-American musicians and cites Quincy Jones as a particularly compelling icon,” the book explains. “Paradoxically, when he moved to the USA, arriving in New York as a teenager in 1982, his sartorial focus shifted toward the Japanese avant-garde and the British New Wave. These days Okwui is a connoisseur of traditional tailoring, particularly the work of the venerable Savile Row outfitter Kilgour. Okwui traced his love of formality back to his days at an all-boys boarding school in Nigeria: ‘there were school uniforms for everything: something you would wear in the morning to go to class, a uniform for sports, there was a uniform for relaxation, and there was a uniform for the weekends, which was perfectly white khaki pants and a white starched shirt. It was just beautiful – you were not even allowed to roll up your sleeves. When I look at a picture of myself at 17 it seems that I’ve worn the same type of clothes ever since.’”