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Okwui Enwezor. Photo:

Six Hits From The Top Ten 0

The most important exhibitions of Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the 56th Venice Biennale of contemporary art

Anna Arutyunova

The 56th Venice Biennale of contemporary art will open in May, and the curator which was chosen is Okwui Enwezor. There is only one way to describe his career: swift. And Enwezor himself often sounds surprised in interviews when he talks about how far he has come, a mere Nigerian who came to New York when he was 19 years old, a poet, and a political scientist graduate. Today Okwui is one of the most interesting curators world-wide.  In anticipation of his next exhibition opening in Venice (as almost all of his previous projects were kind of discoveries in the history of curatorial practice) we decided to recall the exhibitions that made him famous.

In/Sight: AfricanPhotographers, 1940 to the Present
- The Guggenheim Museum, 1996 -

The first Okwui Enwezor’s really important exhibition happened in 1996, and immediately from the start of his career it took place in the prestigious Guggenheim Museum. In/Sight: AfricanPhotographers, 1940-Present became the turning point for the curator, and one can say that with this particular exhibition Okwui’s career on a global scale began (only two years later, as he turned 30-something, he began to prepare Documenta), and also a turning point for the history of African photography of the second half of the 20th century. Although the main point here is not that the young curator was able to present material unique enough to pass Guggenheim’s institutional verification. The fact is, never before has the system of stereotypes and misconceptions, that the Western consciousness is full of when it comes to Africa, been investigated so carefully. And furthermore, never before has the reflection of said stereotypes been presented with the examples of African artists’ work in the context of a western museum.

The genius idea of Okwui (let’s not forget the timeliness of this event - it was only two years since Nelson Mandela became the president of the South African Republic) lay also in the fact that these misconceptions (the made-up images, the mentally invented traits of Africa and its inhabitants) would be talked about with the help of photography. Having played on the duality of photography, which is apparently supposed to tell the truth but actually corrects it every minute, Okwui demonstrated that the image of Africa, which has been formed in the consciousness of the western man, is the same as a photograph that tells us some truth, but not all of it.

This exhibition showed the works of African photographers, from the 1940s-50s, when the old colonial rule was crumbling slowly on that continent, and the western and African cultural scholars tried to formulate the essence of the African identity and the terms of the newly found freedom. What showed that this problem was a priority were the pictures from the studios of African photographers whose black customers were trying to construct the desired image with the help of European-style status objects: the suits sewed to match the European style, watches, etc. It was the first time that an exhibition showed such a large volume of pictures of photo correspondents who had collaborated with the South African magazine Drum, which demonstrated all the horrors of apartheid politics that followed the war. There were famous self-portraits of Samuel Fosso from the 70s, in which he easily juggled many different identities by trying on roles and lives of different people. The more modern photographers, for whom self-determination was likely a factor that already happened and left space for the discussion of the interpretation of identity, addressed the issue in a different manner. They juxtaposed photographs from African family albums with comic books, hinting that the external world’s representation of Africa is just as schematic, conditional, and sometimes comical; they photographed body parts in formaldehyde, reminding the viewer how often pseudoscientific beliefs imprinted judgment on entire nations.

In/Sight was the first exhibition where contemporary art from Africa was put into the world-wide historical context and reviewed as part of a more extensive political process of folding the traditional colonial system and formulating independent African governments. Such an ambitious task was performed impeccably and in a lot of ways the success of this exhibition predicted Okwui’s appointment as the curator of the Second Johannesburg Biennale.

Olafur Eliasson. Erosion. 1997. During the time of the Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, Olafur Eliasson organized a “water stream” which he pumped from the water reservoir that was next to the exhibition hall, where one of his photo sessions was exhibited. The stream flowed through 1.5 km through the city, collecting dirt, leaves and pieces of paper, until it slid into the sewer. People in the city had to overcome the stream and adapt to the changes of their usual urban surroundings. The stream was flowing for three hours.

The Second Johannesburg Biennale
- 1997 -

The year after the Guggenheim exhibition, the South African Republic got a second (and last) Johannesburg Biennale. The preparation process and the concept of this biennale demonstrated many key principles of curatorial work for Enwezor in projects that are large-scale, multi-figured and varied in meaning. First of all, the principle of collaboration. He invited six co-curators, and offered each to work on one of the exhibitions in the framework of the biennale. Every invited co-curator had a background in a specific culture, whose ambassador was, in a way, that curator. But also every curator had a rich experience of intercultural communication, professional and personal life outside the borders of their own country. And this introduces the second principle: internationalism, which is understood as an opportunity to present many points of view at once, from different geographical and cultural coordination systems. That’s why Okwui abandoned the Venetian principle of international pavilions, offering instead the option that allows us to imagine the contemporary world and art as heterogeneous, with many centers that do not obey the classical division of the first, second and third worlds.

The theme of the Biennale was "Trade Routes: History and Geography" and was devoted to globalization and the peculiar effects it had on culture. Many of the works in this Biennale focused on the loss of belonging that many people and things experienced, especially national, economic and cultural.

Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis
- Tate Modern, 2001 -

In one of the older interviews, Enwezor said that perhaps today there is no such thing as a single backbone of what art is, however one can say that the “production” of the artists and intellectuals gets made in cities, not outside of them. The “city” as a creative environment always interested the curator, and therefore it is not surprising that he got invited to co-curate the exhibition “Century City”, which researched the connection between the metropolis and the creative energy. Every one of the nine divisions of the exhibition was devoted to one city in a particular time frame which was especially saturated with artistic revolutions and innovations. For example, Moscow of the period between 1916-1930s, London between 1990-2001, Vienna between 1908-1918, Rio de Janeiro 1955-69, and so on.

Okwui got to curate Lagos of the period between 1955-1970s, when Nigeria became independent and Lagos became one of the most dynamic African cultural centers. Although the idea of this exhibition does not belong fully to Enwezor, it could easily have been completely his, because the approach that the “city” is a melting pot which mixes completely different types of art was very close to Okwui’s thinking. The exhibition was not limited only to visual arts. It also talked about the musical and poetic scenes of Lagos, about the architecture and the process of urbanization, about writers and literature. Okwui presented this decade as a time of forming modernism in Nigeria, perhaps due to the endless mix of traditions and arts; as a time full of hope and discussions about the new postcolonial identification, which ended in 1966 with the beginning of a civil war.

Sabotage Communications. 70.000 Cannabis for Kassel. documenta 11. 2002

Documenta 11
- 2002 -

In 2002 the most professionally venerated contemporary art exhibition opened, Documenta 11 in Kassel, and it was curated by Okwui (the first non-European during the whole 50 year history of the exhibition). Documenta almost always provokes a masse of discussions which support the theoretical heat between critics and curators for a minimum of two consecutive years after the exhibition finishes. In the case of Okwui’s Documenta, the effect was so prolonged, that only one year after it finished, the curator wrote an essay in which he conducted a detailed analysis of his own tasks and methods of implementation, as well as the result, which was the reaction of the professional public. 

As this was an exhibition of international art, since its founding Documenta addressed mainly the history of Western art. When the exhibition criticized or questioned the correctness of the direction of its development, it usually did so from a European point of view and used the artists’ forces from the "western" area. Okwui, of course, completely changed this by accenting the focus on what was happening outside of the usual "centers" of modern art. In Documenta he continued to develop his core interests and themes with which he had been working for a few years. These themes were: the mixed economic and cultural impacts of globalization; the misbalance of views of each other from people of different cultures; the difficulty of overcoming stereotypes; the role of documentary evidence in art; the reconstruction of what the world of art looks like from the geographical regions that the classical history of art was still avoiding (and here, of course, the main roles were fulfilled by the artists from Africa).

Perhaps these were not completely new themes for Documenta, however never before have they sounded so powerful in this predominantly western exhibition. Additionally, Okwui turned the process of getting ready for Documenta into an integral and, what’s more important, open for the public, part of the exhibition. In the future he would use this technique again. The research platforms and events preceding the exhibition project (which allowed the preliminary discussions about the project) became one of the founding principles of Okwui’s curatorial practice.

(c) Fazal Sheikh. 1997

Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art
- International Center of Photogrpahy, 2008 -

The exhibition “Archive Fever” saw Okwui return to one of his favorite themes, which is the properties and roles of documentary evidence. Actually Documenta 11 in Kassel talked about the “document” (photos, videos, installations - any work of art which is based on an image hinting at its reality but not necessarily confirming it) in its role as a method of modern art. The New York Center of Photography made the focus on the systematization of these documents, the value of the archive as a way of seeing the familiar facts anew, and the role of photography and video as being fundamental to the archiving of different kinds of art.

Okwui demonstrated very different methods of using archives in art. He showed artists which turned to archives as to an impersonal vault of information, which allowed to reconstruct whole chapters in history. For example, there was Hans-Peter Feldman who collected all the editions of newspapers that came out on September 12, 2001. On the other hand, Okwui also showed artists who used the archive as a way of understanding personal stories which unfolded in front of big historical events. As he continued to balance between the conventional sense of photography as a trustworthy witness to real events, and the doubt related to the truth of its “documentation”, Okwui gave freedom to those artists who used the methods of archives to tell stories about unreal, made-up facts and characters. With this they provoked the viewer who is used to believing in “documentation”, they offered to think about the truth behind the images of the world which surrounded him. In other words, Okwui’s beloved method of shaking the customary coordination systems was brilliantly realized in this exhibition.

Okwui Enwezor. Photo:

The 7th Gwangju Biennale
- 2008 -

Following his own reaction to the exhibition and biennale boom of the 1990s-2000s, Enwezor offered to look at the actual system of exhibition production as a curator of the 7th biennale in Gwangju in South Korea. Instead of making the biennale out of artists’ works, he filled the biennale with other exhibitions. The biennale was called “On the Road/Position Papers/Insertions” and mostly consisted of traveling exhibitions which were invited to take part in the biennale while it operated. So instead of an exhibition with a particular theme (which, of course, still existed), the biennale transformed into a kind of knot made of an international web of exhibitions; and every exhibition that took part in the biennale transformed into a production of contemporary art and the expression of contemporary cultural practices.

Of course, the significant shift from the production of art (and the artist as the main hero of an exhibition) to the exhibition itself and the curator, was symptomatic. The “age of curators” began, and Okwui, one of its prophets and perpetrators, was one of the first who decided to research the causes and consequences of this quivering shift in the art world. Although the conclusion perhaps was not about the power of the curator, but perhaps it was the opposite. Okwui was trying again to demonstrate the importance of collaboration and having multiple voices, whose help is the only way to get even a millimeter closer to understanding the global picture of the contemporary art world.