New Museum Online Event: Meeting Worlds – On Okwui Enwezor’s Work

Franklin Sirmans – Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami

Franklin Sirman’s presentation commenced with information about Okwui Enwezor’s early articles written in the inaugural year of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art – which was co-founded with Olu Oguibe in 1995.  In particular, the review piece “The Inverted Sign” (1995) – which was written as a critical response to the 1993 Whitney Biennial, and specifically discussed the colourful pencil and ink drawings and pictorial alphabet created by the Ivorian artist and poet Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014) – was foregrounded. The Whitney’s selection of artists invited to present work focused on intersectional aspects of race, gender, sexuality and wider issues of identity was seen as problematic – especially with regard to art-political matters of representation and racial justice.

For Franklin, Okwui Enwezor’s skilful conjoining of art and politics as inseparable aspects of his commentary on contemporary visual art reflected a prescience and clarity of vision that he retained throughout his career – enabling him to become one of the most influential, forward-thinking theorists publishing and staging exhibitions elucidating global and decolonial perspectives about ‘multiple’ and ‘alternative modernities.’

Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran performing the jazz composition “Work Songs” (2015) at the 56th Venice Biennale / La Biennale di Venezia, Italy.

By tracing Okwui’s career trajectory, from the early 1990s through to his ground-breaking directorship of the 56th Venice Biennale (“All the World’s Futures”) in 2015, Franklin demonstrated the scholar’s determination to continually showcase the full extent of Black visual expression – including “Black joy” – at a time when African-descended artists (from the continent, as well as the diaspora) were regularly pigeonholed into only exhibiting race-focused work about the violence and traumas of racism.

Ute Meta Bauer – Founding Director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and Professor, NTU School of Art

Ute Meta Bauer’s reflections focused on her gratitude being invited to join Okwui Enwezor’s diverse curatorial team for Documenta 11 (1998-2002), which also included luminaries such as Carlos Basualdo, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya.

As Documenta’s youngest Artistic Director – and first person of colour to take on that prominent leadership role – Okwui’s radical, globalising approach involved de-centralising and relocating aspects of the pre-Kassel conference dialogues and thematic presentations to multiple locations on four continents, where he staged the following thematic platforms:

  • Platform 1. “Democracy Unrealized,” hosted in Vienna and Berlin;
  • Platform 2. “Experiments with Truth,” in New Delhi, India;
  • Platform 3. “Créolité and Creolization,” in Gros Islet, St. Lucia;
  • Platform 4.“Under Siege: Four African Cities (Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, and Lagos)” in Lagos, Nigeria.

Documenta 11 Platform 5, (08/06/2002 – 15/09/2002) – Filmed by Philipp J. Bösel  2002 (Duration: 3:47 mins.).

Terry Smith Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Pittsburgh

Lastly, Terry Smith spoke movingly about the way Okwui Enwezor always endeavoured to broaden Western artistic discourses by advancing African-focused and globalised perspectives on “conceptualism.” Importantly, Terry recalled how Okwui felt about colonial exploitation throughout the Global South acting as a major trigger for the emergence of diverse manifestations of artistic modernism around the world; thus challenging the Eurocentric orthodoxies about modernism prominent in the West. Moreover, Okwui’s determination to foreground ideas about what he termed “Black imagining” on periods of art history – as a way of challenging the conventional periodisation – was deeply insightful. These reminiscences were illustrated using artworks from some of his friend’s most celebrated exhibitions. For example:

“Sydney from the Air” (1963), by Indigenous, First Nation Australian artist Mawalan Marika – which featured in the exhibition “Post-war: 1945-1965. Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic” (2016-17). Image source: https://postwar.hausderkunst.de/en/

Vernissage TV – The 56th Venice Biennale, recorded at the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, 8 May 2015. (Duration: 5:39 mins.)

Concluding remarks

Okwui Enwezor was an outstanding theorist and a sublime wordsmith, whose critical scholarship has informed (and continues to influence) my own research and writing about contemporary visual art, the global art-political landscape, and the worlding of exhibiting practices. The afore-mentioned three presentations combined to exemplify the significance and brilliance of Okwui Enwezor’s transformative, history-making impacts on the art world. It is because of him that we are much further along in our efforts to make the contemporary arts sector – especially its major biennials – an internationally diverse, inclusive, non-elitist and progressive arena for celebrating artistic excellence.

References and web links

Oliver Basciano (2019) “Okwui Enwezor: the Nigerian who confronted the European art canon,” The Guardian, 22 March 2019.

Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for Okwui Enwezor: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Okwui-Enwezor

Exhibition: “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” (New Museum, 17 February – 6 June 2021):  https://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/grief-and-grievance-art-and-mourning-in-america-1

Okwui Enwezor (2015) Interviewed by Vitra Design Museum [You Tube]

Vernissage TV (2015) The 56th Venice Biennale, recorded at the Giardini della Biennale and the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, 8 May 2015.  (Duration: 5:39 mins.) – https://youtu.be/P6LLeC9GiA8

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