I first met Okwui Enwezor in 1997, at Bard College in upstate New York, when the curatorial team for the Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s was assembled by the project organizers: the artist Luis Camnitzer, the scholar Rachel Weiss, and the curator Jane Farver. The exhibition opened at the Queens Museum, New York, in April 1999, and traveled elsewhere in the US. The aim was to show New Yorkers and other Americans that conceptualist practices from elsewhere were not pale imitations of European and US models. Instead, they had originated throughout the world in response to local conditions; and were usually more political in intention and effect. At the Bard workshop, each curator was challenged to prove that “our” artists—the artists from the region we represented—met these criteria. Okwui and I were provoked by this: me to show that, in Australia and New Zealand, there were both imitators and originators, but more importantly to demonstrate that conceptualism was more an “art in transit” than an art locked into local settings. Okwui’s answer was better. Fresh from curating the 2nd Johannesburg Biennial, he boomed “Of course, there are some artists who are clearly international conceptualists, yet work in unique ways.” He showed South African Willem Boshoff’s braille text pieces. “But,” he continued, “the point is that, as Yoruba knowledge tells us, in Africa, artists emerge from a long tradition of ideas, language, and performance.” Thus, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. African art, he was saying, has always been conceptual and political—on a broader scale, and in deeper, more embedded ways than anything you can imagine.
Global Conceptualism was reviled at the time; it is now regarded as a landmark exhibition, a harbinger of the “global exhibitions” to come, that are now almost a norm for exhibitions that aim to be seriously consequential. Okwui was not only a pioneer of this form, he quickly became its leading exponent. What drove him to take on such ambitious projects? What enabled him to succeed, so often, over more than two decades?
His personal qualities were evident to all who knew him. A love of life. A large laugh. A generosity of spirit. High intelligence. A constant quest for more knowledge; an incessant self-education. A gift for friendship. He was a demanding companion and a challenging colleague. Of course, he had unlimited ambition—for himself and for his projects. His natural inclination to leadership was tempered by an instinct towards collective action. True grit. Unbending integrity. Impatience with stupidity; hatred of cupidity. An instinctive educator; a great teacher (he was much loved at the University of Pittsburgh, where I brought him to teach, straight after Documenta 11). He was an inspiring, indefatigable collaborator, as I found out when he and Nancy Condee and I worked together in Pittsburgh to stage the conference that led to Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Duke, 2008). Above all, he was a visionary, a dreamer.
He possessed a love of art that encompassed continents and centuries, thus making a random stroll through the Metropolitan Museum, New York, his greatest happiness as a private visitor to an art gallery. It is one of the world’s losses that we never got to see Okwui in the role as director of that museum, or an equivalent institution. While the United States, to its great credit, was able to elect, and reelect, a black president (for whom we both voted), black directors of major museums are few and far between. The situation in Europe is no better. We talked about this structural exclusion, which he felt keenly. The world’s geopolitical turning would, we dared to hope, eventually lead to change, despite the current reactionary regressions. It is a matter of deep regret that his life cut short—he died in Munich on 15 March 2019—means that we will never see him break through that wall, as he did so many others.
But Okwui Enwezor amounted to much more than the sum of his personal qualities, and a lot more than the list of his formal identities. This became truly clear when I visited Documenta 11, the fifth platform of which was at Kassel in June 2002. For me, a defining moment occurred in the Documenta Halle, in the installation From/To by Fareed Armaly and Rashid Masharawi. Armaly, an artist of Lebanese-Palestinian descent, born in the US and resident in Stuttgart, designed a floor grid of orientations based on territories claimed by Palestine. Masharawi, a Palestinian filmmaker, born in the Shati refugee camp and resident of Ramallah, presented an engrossing program of Palestinian film. The projection space included an illuminated wall map showing the actual locations of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. It became obvious at a glance that Israel was establishing “facts on the ground” that would make the two-state solution supposedly desired by all parties a practical impossibility.
An informed, free press would have made this known to all, but these were the months after 9/11. The War on Terror had been declared by the oligarchs who were then, as now, in command of nations. Information inimical to their interests was systematically eclipsed, even in “free” societies. In the United States, where we were living, opposition was rare, and when exceptional intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag raised their voices against the tide of misinformation, mindless patriotism, and fearful retreat from critique, they were pilloried. Okwui and his team, and the artists in the exhibition, did not fear such criticism. They had a larger duty: to show the world to us as it was, and to imagine the world as it might be, after the legacies of colonialism are finally overcome.
Okwui called this: opening “The Black Box.” Not just creating spaces for photography, video, and documentary, but also exposing the world’s unconscious, its centuries of repression. Under his guidance, the exhibition became a space of liberation.
A certain trajectory emerges in the series of his exhibitions that began at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996, with In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, and continued with Trade Routes: History and Geography, 2nd Johannesburg Biennial (1977); Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (2001-2002); Documenta 11 (2002); and then through several others, up to and including his recent major achievements. It was no accident that he located the continuous reading of undervalued yet essential texts at the core of most of his exhibitions. Nor that, at Venice in 2015, it was Karl Marx’s Capital. Thomas Pikkety’s globalized version, Capital for the Twenty-first Century, had been published the year before. Okwui wanted us to remember the real thing, to help us imagine All the World’s Futures more clearly.
No curator working today matches the scope of Okwui’s vision. I see him as the Karl Marx of contemporary curating. I say this with full awareness that each of us is a clutch of contradictions, as was Marx himself. Okwui’s deep understanding of the kinds of work that art does in the world parallels Marx’s grasp of the importance of modes of production, and how when they change, the world changes. These are not abstractions. They are insights into how things are, and how they might get worse, or better, or both. Compare any of his exhibitions, with their world-historical sweep, to the mainstream surveys of contemporary art, vaguely shaped according to a generalizing, pluralistic theme—for example, most editions of the Venice Biennale. In contrast, Okwui became the master of what we might call the contemporary, historical, and critical exhibition. Magnificent Scale was a great title for the El Anatsui exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich: it describes Okwui’s achievements equally well.
In a conversation that we had in Munich in 2013, that was published two years later in my book Talking Contemporary Curating, he said this:
To me the fundamental challenges that a curator faces today are how to provoke an engaged confrontation with works of art, how to make that experience legible, and how to use it to open up forms of engagement with the world. Exhibitions, in this sense, open up the surplus value of art. They create value of many kinds, simply because each time artworks are exhibited they accrue new meaning, new force, and open out new possibilities, while not necessarily changing their shape. In turn, art changes the perceptions of those it engages—so, to make an exhibition is to theorize the place of art not only in institutions, but also in public spaces, and, if you will, in the world.
To truly value the surplus value of art, and to never use it for its exchange value—that was what Okwui believed that contemporary curating should do.
In the week before he died, on 15 March 12019, I spent many hours each day by his hospital bed in Munich, as the vast complexities of his life converged upon us. It was a privilege to be there with him then, as it had been, so often but never often enough, since 1997.
TERRY SMITH is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School. In 2010, he became Australia Council Visual Arts Laureate and the received the Franklin Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association (USA). Books include What is Contemporary Art? (2009), Contemporary Art: World Currents (2011), Thinking Contemporary Curating (2012), Talking Contemporary Curating (2015), The Contemporary Composition (2016), One and Five Ideas: On Conceptual Art and Conceptualism (2107), and Art to Come: Histories of Contemporary Art (2019). See http://www.terryesmith.net/web