Okwui Enwezor

We met contemporary art curator Okwui Enwezor in 2005, when Base began designing the identity of San Francisco Art Institute, where he is Dean of Academic Affairs. He’s since curated the Second International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville (2006–07) and the 2008 Gwnangju Biennale, among many other exhibitions, and brought us on to design the identities of both. In that time, we’ve gotten to know Okwui as having an insatiable intellectual curiosity and, as a curator, a remarkable ability to assimilate and re-contextualize cross-cultural elements and orchestrate consistently surprising results.

Base: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to become a curator? Was there a mitigating or catalyzing event?

Okwui Enwezor: Each time I have tried to answer this question I enter a cul-de-sac, because I try so hard to identify the climactic event, a grand narrative of sorts that was the spur to what has become for me a real job. While the answer is no there was no mitigating event, the reality is more complicated than that. Before becoming a curator, I did not entirely feel the need to become one. I was writing poetry seriously, and my goal was to become a writer, a critic. I considered graduate school in these directions but only halfheartedly. Nonetheless, I was very interested in contemporary art and generally educated myself about what was going on in the field by seeing numerous exhibitions. I sort of haunted galleries. I went to museums and soaked it all in. I was in my late teens when I arrived in New York in 1982, and my self-education happened because I was deeply curious about the broader cultural setting of the city, which in the early eighties was quite exciting. However, being an expatriate Nigerian living in the U.S., my cultural and historical trajectory was barely visible on the margins of the larger American culture and society. There were no models as such to whom I could look, which made the idea of aspiring to be a curator a remote possibility. Museums were to my mind then foreboding, essentially the hallowed ground of European authority which administered the deep mysteries of art. In much of the art I saw, galleries and museums perpetuated the same fallacy that art was essentially made only by European or white artists. So from that point of view it appeared to me like a closed system, and I resigned myself to enjoying exhibitions that I saw. But as I got older, into my twenties, I no longer thought that this state of affairs was credible. That was when I started thinking, in the late 1980s, that I wanted to explore the world occupied by African and African American artists. And once I was able to scrape up enough money, my first instinct was to found a publication as a platform from which artists of African descent could be provided a critical window into the broader global world. From that moment, my goal was to be as rigorous as possible and to be global rather than provincial. After nearly 20 years of struggle and marginalization, looking back today, as the saying goes, the rest is history. But it did not happen overnight. I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt and I had to acquire the confidence and critical competence to do what I do today.


For this interview, we asked Enwezor to pick his list of artists to watch. The first, above, is Els Opsomer. The piece: 10th of November | 09:05 |, 2008 16mm film projection with sound. Featured in the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

B: How do you view the role of a curator?

OE: There are different roles that a curator can occupy, it all depends on what the pursuit is. From the point at which I started, my initial goal as a curator was to be an advocate for the types of art and artists who were largely absent from the cultural artistic mainstream. I made this pursuit a singular intellectual commitment, which was to open up, as much as I could, a new space of discursive address for transnational artists. But a curator can’t simply be the advocate or booster or supporter of one type of art or another without a sustainable intellectual and cultural argument, which means a curator, in valuing the ideas and narratives that certain types of art expose, must by necessity be a credible thinker of all the complex formal, conceptual manifestations of that art. A curator lays these ideas in exhibitions, hopefully convincingly, and with clarity so that a lay public can make sense of the important things art says about itself and that artists struggle mightily to communicate. A curator, more than being an organizer of exhibitions, at least for me, is someone who puts forth a thesis, a proposal about particular attributes of art, and uses the exhibition to provide an argument for its cultural and artistic importance, and if they are academics or scholars, employ the catalogue essay to examine the role of that art within broader art historical consideration. But the one role I do not subscribe to is the curator playing the role of the supreme judge of what is correct. I loathe the idea of the curator as judge of taste. To me there is no critical judgment in tastemaking, only a perverse form of prejudice emerges from taste.


Gerard Byrne, Production still from 1984 and Beyond, 2005–2007 3 single-channel DVD on lcd screen, set of 20 black and white photographs, vinyl text on wall Dimensions variable, Framed photographs: 39 x 46 x 6 cm each. Featured in the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

Jooyeon Park, Passer-by: between azure, bisque and teal, 2007– 2008 16 mm film installation, Dimensions variable 20:00. Featured in the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

B: One of your first major assignments was to curate the Johannesburg biennial, which proved to be a rocky experience. At that point did you ever consider changing careers?

OE: Yes. Johannesburg was important in several respects. You must remember, I got this appointment in 1996, two years after the first democratic elections in South Africa after the end of apartheid. There could not be a better historical point to be an African curator working in the African continent in a country undergoing deep and fundamental change. To me, being in South Africa in the mid-’90s was profoundly world changing: Nelson Mandela was the president, Archibishop Desmond Tutu was presiding over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intense debates about culture and art were taking place all across the country. And in the midst of all this, I found myself, at 32, serving as the artistic director. There was something so vital about being in that context, that I immediately chose to seize the historical opportunity which was to use the biennial as a window through which we can examine the globalization of art. The theme of the biennial, “Trade Routes: History and Geography”, provided an opportunity to think of the routes of art and culture, their circulation as commodities of exchange, rather a tool of historical narcissism.
Even though there were controversies about the exhibition locally, this had mostly to do with the intense political contestations that were going on in the country between white privilege and black frustrations about being shut out. I was somehow, in a limited sense seen to be an agent on both sides of either black supremacy, or part of the comprador class of neo-colonialists in support of white supremacy. I even got death threats. But I never took such threats seriously. I had strong goodwill from the artistic community, both black and white, and I enjoyed living in South Africa. In any case, the exhibition itself was quite successful and was critically well received. So I never considered quitting. First I landed a job at the Art Institute of Chicago, albeit as adjunct curator, and almost a year later I was appointed the artistic director of Documenta 11. It was an amazing time.


Koki Tanaka, Physical Test, 2007–2008 Mixed media: 100 objects, 6 tables (140 x 70 x 70 cm each) 5 photographs (120 x 160 cm each). Featured in the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

B: This was 1998-2002. What about that show got people so passionate?

OE: You know working in Johannesburg was a mold breaker. I worked on a scale that was as large as Documenta, but without the same resources. Johannesburg was a confidence builder; it gave me all the tools I needed to overcome the doubts of many in the critical establishment about my ability to undertake the rigorous test of Documenta. First, the ambitions I had for Johannesburg, both intellectually and curatorially, were large, and we realized, despite some difficulties, much of what I had set up to do. I brought together a group of transnational curators from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States to work on Johannesburg. My point was that Africa has lessons to teach about openness and intellectual and cultural generosity. After all, we were in the midst of a political miracle that required incredible amount of generosity and humanity to overcome the wide scale abuses of apartheid and colonialism, so for me that was a principle to emulate in the composition of my team. I know it is always fashionable for historically autistic Western curators to mock that kind of broad-based curatorial teams, which they would call political correctness. Anyway, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to realign Documenta 11’s priorities as far as the location of contemporary art was concerned. I wanted to deterritorialize the exhibition, to redistribute its accumulated cultural capital. That gave rise to the idea of the platforms. Initially, critics did not properly understand it and were negative. They thought there would be no art. But when the exhibition opened, it became clear that we had not sacrificed a single work of art; rather, we reaffirmed the importance of art. But what may have been controversial was the sense that the exhibition privileged a lot of documentary practices from across the world. That gave some critics pause, but it also energized and mobilized serious debate.

B: What do you look for when considering an artist for a show that you’re curating?

OE: It depends on what the show is. I have no prescriptions. I am always curious about new developments. At the same time there are some artists whose ideas and projects have been critically important, who are not only colleagues but intellectual companions. But the work has to be relevant to the matter at hand, but also has to have a sense of cultural durability and substance in so far as the arc of the artist’s overall approach is concerned. So it depends.


Lamia Joreige Objects of War, 1999–2006 Video, color. Featured in BIACS2.

B: We first met through the San Francisco Art Institute where you are the Dean of Students. How do you view your contribution to it during your tenure there?

OE: Actually, I am not the Dean of Students. I am the Dean of the school. My formal title is Dean of Academic Affairs. It’s been a deeply illuminating four years of work. I have learned a lot, and gained a deeper insight into the politics of institutions and the limits of academic tolerance. SFAI is a complex community. But thus far we have been energetically working on the academic and cultural revitalization of the curriculum, making it relevant not only historically but also addressing serious deficits in terms of how contemporary life figures in what students are learning. We have been committed to the idea of academic excellence, innovations in research, etc. In four years we have been relentless in developing new programs. Thus far we have four new programs and more are in the pipeline. I can’t judge my contributions yet, but on an incremental level, we are slowly moving forward. It’s been busy so far.


Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Doctorate, 2007 Oil on Canvas 60 x 50 cm. Featured in the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

B: We’ve also worked together on the Seville and Gwangju biennials, both of which have been called “politically charged” in the press. Do you agree? If so, do you feel that these sorts of global shows put forth a political message?

OE: Politics always depends on who is saying it, and by charging my shows with being political, I suppose critics are playing their own politics. I make no apologies with the fact that I am interested in the interconnection between formal, conceptual, social, and political dimensions of art. I am by nature not into the orthodoxy of formalism. However, if you look at both shows you mentioned, what you can never fail to see is the centrality of the art work. These are not my politics, but the work and ideas of artists made flesh. It becomes political when the shock of recognition forces the viewer to contend with the fact that art is not only pretty, aesthetically pleasing objects and images, but a network of complex relations to society that require concentrated examination.

Read part 2 of this interview.