Portrait of Okwui Enwezor, artistic director of Documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, 2002. Photo by Werner Maschmann. Courtesy Documenta Archiv, Kassel. 

Remembering Okwui Enwezor

Also available in:  Chinese

Ten Kilometers


Queridísimo Okwui,

What is memory? Why does one remember? How does one remember? Where do we keep hundreds, thousands of memories in our brain? When does memory become history?

It feels strange to write you a tribute. How does one honor someone whose life was a tribute, a gift to me, and to so many artists around the world? A life dedicated to art and culture? A life spent insisting, asserting, demanding, that we, artists and intellectuals, create models of thinking the world?

Okwui Enwezor in coversation with artist Alfredo Jaar in Paris, at the Amphithéâtre d’Honneur de l’École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, on February 16, 2011. 

Of all the memories I have of you and us, it is the following reminiscence that came first to my mind:

It was September 1998. We were in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country. You had come to see my “Rwanda Project” exhibition, which had started in Barcelona six months earlier. You had been there too. I still remember our conversations in the magnificent Rambla. It felt surreal to discuss the genocide in that surrounding. Who really cared about a million black bodies slaughtered in less than one hundred days? Done in the face of the criminal indifference of the so-called world community?

But back to San Sebastian. I thought you had come to see my exhibition but I was wrong. That was not your only reason. You wanted to talk about something else. It was a beautiful September night. After dinner, you invited me to a walk in the Playa de la Concha, probably the most beautiful beach in Spain. We walked from the Mirador del Náutico on one extreme to the Peine del Viento (“The Wind Comb”), the extraordinary Chillida sculpture in the other extreme. And we walked. And walked. And walked. And we talked. And talked. And talked. We went from one end to the other, four times. Ten kilometers. When I went to sleep that night, I felt that our walk would never end. And it has been exactly like this. I walk around the world and I talk with you, my dear Okwui.

I still remember the precise moment when you told me the news. We were standing in front of the Chillida, in awe. The waves were rising and falling, and rising again, almost dancing, hammering the sculptures anchored to the rocks. The steel carried the sound of the whistling wind, like a lament.

“I will be curating the next Documenta,” you said, almost in a whisper.

I was speechless. You smiled, and then burst into that laugh of yours that is simply unique and strikingly unforgettable. We stood there, laughing, in that place where the city ends and the sea begins, the sound of your laugh competing with the wind. We resumed our walk. You had an infinite number of ideas for the show. They were all terrible, you thought. Something else was needed, something that could potentially change the scene, transform our little and insular art world—a revolution, you said with a murmur.

Documenta 11 in 2002 was indeed a revolution, dear Okwui, and the art world was never the same after.

It is not too early to measure the impact of that exhibition and what came later. It was a series of shattering events that changed everything. We are all your orphans, dear Okwui, and I keep walking, searching for you.

The curatorial team of Documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, 2002. From left to right: Carlos Basualdo, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Okwui Enwezor, Ute Meta Bauer, Octavio Zaya, Mark Nash. Photo by Werner Maschmann. Courtesy Documenta Archiv, Kassel. 

Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor


In the late 1990s, one of the primary meeting points for many curators from around the world was, surprisingly, an art fair. Every year in Madrid, ARCO hosted a series of topical talks initiated by the fair’s inaugural director Rosina Gómez-Baeza. It was there, at one of the panels, that Okwui and I first met. In the same year, 1998, we were both invited as speakers to a conference in Copenhagen convened by the artist group Superflex. At a roundtable, Okwui and I got into an argument about the role of gender in Africa compared with Europe. When our session concluded I remember thinking, well, that was that. In reality our relationship had just begun. 

We met again the following year at the ARCO panels. Okwui, who had just been appointed artistic director of Documenta 11, asked me if I would consider joining his curatorial team. I was surprised by the invitation given our prior disagreement but realized that he had carefully studied all the projects I had previously done. The team included Octavio Zaya, with whom Okwui had curated his first exhibition in a major institution, “In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1996; Carlos Basualdo, then a New York-based curator from Argentina; and Susanne Ghez, renowned director of the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, as well as London-based art historian Sarat Maharaj, and Mark Nash, a writer and producer of independent films. All of them were related to Okwui through projects, intellectual exchange, shared agency and friendship.

Our first curatorial meeting for Documenta 11 took place just three months later at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999), and from there we embarked on “thinking and doing Documenta,” as Okwui and Sarat called it, based on Okwui’s curatorial proposal “The Black Box.” This framework served to address the vast impact of postcolonial constellations, including artistic practices from different parts of the world situated within various fields of tension where culture and politics overlap. The meeting in Venice also marked our departure on a three-and-a-half-year journey that spanned five platforms across four continents and the publishing of eight books. 

Documenta 11 was driven by Okwui’s consistent attitude of  “the sky is the limit,” and his desire to transform this unique opportunity into a paradigm shift that could not be reversed. As Okwui stated in his catalogue essay: “Postcoloniality, in its demand for full inclusion within the global system and by contesting existing epistemological structures, shatters the narrow focus of Western global optics and fixes its gaze on the wider sphere of the new political, social and cultural relations that emerged after World War II.” Through the five platforms of Documenta 11, he advanced a far-reaching demand for change by adding discourses embedded in colonial history, the formation of new nation-states, and geopolitical alliances. After all, he had a background and deep interest in political science and global politics. He inaugurated Documenta 11 eighteen months before its initial opening dates in Vienna, thereby extending the “Museum of 100 Days” not only in time but also in its territory, beyond Kassel and Europe to India, the Caribbean, and Africa. Its founder Arnold Bode had intended to reconnect Germany, in the aftermath of the Nazi regime, to the world through the arts. But Okwui, in its 11th edition, had expanded the origin of Documenta as a “world exhibition” to a “global affair.”  

There is so much to talk about, but what comes immediately to my mind is cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s inaugural keynote of Platform 1: “Democracy Unrealized,” which defined democracy through its inherent nature as perpetually positioned on the horizon. To prepare Platform 2: “Experiments with Truth,” in New Delhi, Okwui and part of the curatorial team attended the International War Crimes Tribunals in The Hague in the presence of judge Albie Sachs, a member of the African National Congress who served on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Our meetings in The Hague were also attended by the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, author of When Victims Become Killers (2001), which addressed the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This points to the scale of engagement. Platform 3: “Créolité and Creolization” was a closed workshop that took place on the island of Saint Lucia, where participating artist Isaac Julien’s parents were born, and was attended by speakers from regions around the planet shaped by the brutal history of slavery. Platform 4: “Under Siege: Four African Cities: Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos,” finally took us to Okwui’s native country, and significantly, speakers from across the continent were able to meet on African soil. Having moved multiple times in his youth due to the civil war between the breakaway Biafra state and Nigeria, Okwui was sensitive to the impact of forced migration, poverty, and violence caused by armed conflicts and borders outlined by colonial rule. 

Platform 5 took place in Kassel, as all prior editions of Documenta have, opening in June 2002 and stretching over five venues. It was dedicated solely to artistic practice and featured 118 artists and filmmakers. Never had this world exhibition been so worldly. As Okwui wrote to me shortly before his death, “[It] was a real bomb when I was announced artistic director of Documenta 11. It truly changed the art world’s petit bourgeois global compass and nothing has ever remained the same.” Documenta 11, with its equally weighted platforms across continents, was an expression of respect for discourses, their generators, and their respective geopolitical situatedness. Since then, artistic positions and their frames of reference can no longer be reduced to a Western perspective, and today the significance of artists such as Zarina Bhimji, Amar Kanwar, Raqs Media Collective, Yang Fudong, and so many others featured in Documenta 11 cannot be disputed.

We are just beginning to realize what the loss of Okwui Enwezor means for the world of art. Okwui’s curatorial vision was informed by his articulate opposition against hegemonic powers, social injustice, and the continued exclusion of people of color. He was certainly one of the most inspiring and rigorous forces in the field of curating, who seamlessly linked the exclusive contemporary art industry with world politics. Equally important, his absence is deeply felt by many of us on a personal level, by all of those whom he worked with over the past three decades, by those inspired by his charisma, his ambition, and the way he used his position of power to radically shift the status quo wherever he worked. Okwui was paramount in dealing with the symbolic capital of discourses, artifacts, exhibitions and their sites. He understood the art world and its context as a stage, as a polis, as an open terrain for a wide variety of acteurs who don’t accept the given political configurations and call for a critical review of art history and history itself. 

This was evident also in his other seminal exhibition projects, which he has conceived since the late 1990s: the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, entitled “Trade Routes: History and Geography” (1997), which caused a tense debate between the local and the international art scenes; the powerful and brilliant combination of art, cultural artifacts, historical film footage and documents in “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994” (2001–02); the 2nd Seville Biennial (2006); the Triennale in Paris (2012); and “All the World’s Futures,” the central exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). 

Okwui understood the practice of curating as politics by other means. This was palpable in his most comprehensive undertaking: a trilogy at the Haus der Kunst with a focus spanning seven decades, of which “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” (2016–17) marked just the beginning. “Postcolonialism” and “Postcommunism,” the two other chapters, he could not see realized due to his untimely death. His program for the Haus der Kunst was nothing short of a rewriting of art history, providing large-scale institutional exhibitions to artists of color such as Ellen Gallagher, Vivan Sundaram, Frank Bowling, and El Anatsui, the latter co-curated with fellow Nigerian and longtime collaborator Chika Okeke-Agulu. Understandably, the reasons communicated by the new leadership of the Haus der Kunst to the media regarding the abrupt cancellation of the exhibition collaborations to feature Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper infuriated him.

Okwui preferred to work in teams, and collaborations often turned into long-lasting friendships. He was always on a mission, with seemingly infinite energy. What many overlooked was his vulnerability. For him, as a person of color, his professional standing was not self-evident, and he often pointed out that it was German institutions that had made space, resources, and leadership positions available to him, providing him with the scale and infrastructure that is necessary to create lasting change. 

Despite his severe illness, Okwui was actively involved in new projects, such as Ghana’s first pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, and the newly founded Africa Institute in Sharjah, led by his longtime close friend and co-editor of Nka Journal of African Art, Salah M. Hassan. He worked on numerous projects at home, in Munich, or from his hospital bed. Okwui has always been at work: reading, thinking, discussing, arguing, writing. Until the day of his death, he was surrounded by a diverse circle of friends and colleagues. Okwui was an elegant global citizen, charismatic and eloquent, but his position was that of an African, a proud member of the Igbo people, who did not accept the ongoing hegemony of Western politics, economic power, and culture. If we really wish to honor Okwui’s important position and uncompromising attitude, it would mean to continue his projects just as uncompromisingly as he would have done.

Okwui Enwezor at the opening of the 7th Gwangju Biennale, 2008. Photo by Mo Cheolhong. Courtesy Gwangju Biennale. 

A memory of a singular, triumphant spirit for our time


News of the passing of the extraordinary curator and intellect Okwui Enwezor, who greatly impacted people all over the world, found me during preparations for the Korea Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and gave me a great sense of loss. “Who canonized the formation of history? And whose bodies are yet to be written about as part of that history?” These are the questions that I brought to the Korea Pavilion this year, and they absolutely owe themselves to exceptional frontiers established by Enwezor, a curator, poet, educator, and writer whose life and curatorial practice was dedicated to exploring these problems. 

When he invited me to be a co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008, I was seen as relatively inexperienced. However, his bold decision to invite a younger female Korean curator to work on a mega-scale biennial was indeed a big gesture to challenge the established order at the time. I believe that it was also a true contribution to a society such as Korea’s where we still witness the existence of inequality related to gender and age. He was keen to develop my precarious position, and never limited my role to being a local interpreter or organizer. Indeed I had an amazing year, and it was a truly inspiring moment for me. I grew from the intensive research that we undertook, while also traveling and having numerous conversations with him. “There are artists in every corner of the world, and we have to meet them, and we should keep looking to find their works,” he insisted. I still hear in his voice his great strength. He was a man of indefatigable confidence and was visionary in his ethics and intellectuality. He was an eloquent speaker who always brought wonderful debates to the table. 

In each of his most celebrated exhibitions—from the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1997); “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994” (2001) at the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich; Documenta 11 (1998–2002); the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla (2006); the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008); to La Triennale in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo (2012); to the 56th Venice Biennale (2015); and “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” at the Haus der Kunst in Munich (2016)—he never failed to present powerful artworks and striking exhibitions with the intent to awaken the world with his insightful postcolonial arguments. From the 7th Gwangju Biennale to the “Postwar” exhibition, Enwezor’s exhibitions were still steadily evolving and becoming more solid in their meticulously and gracefully woven exhibition syntax, all while remaining rooted in acute forms of intellectual debate. They were serious, political, and unafraid, and also brilliant, luminous, dazzling, performative, and soulful, carrying his triumphant spirit that stands for the many Others in the world.

Many of us will remember how he questioned the dominant Western-centered world order. My memory of him also ties in with my vibrant experience of seeing how he writes his exhibitions “singular plural” (following Jean-Luc Nancy). Enwezor accomplished remarkable historical projects over the last 25 years—and they are that much more important and relevant in the midst of the horrific waves of political backlash we are witnessing in many countries today. During my last dinner with him in Munich in 2017, he was more than enthusiastic as he described his exhibition trilogy that had begun with the “Postwar” exhibition. What he was preparing after “Postwar” was a long-term critical reflection around May 1968, in which he examines the permanent legacy of the revolution, questioning how events in the West were historicized and how similar events outside the West were received in comparison. Indeed, this argument was already articulated ten years ago, in a text written for the catalogue of the 7th Gwangju Biennale:

Okwui Enwezor with former director of the Gwangju Biennale Dr. Youngwoo Lee at the 7th Gwangju Biennale, 2008. Photo by Mo Cheolhong. Courtesy Gwangju Biennale. 

But can we indeed insist that the world changed during those brief three days of confusion on the streets of Paris? Were the changes that occurred truly long-lasting? Can their effects be traced beyond the boundaries of Western self-conceptions of the destiny of the social democracies that emerged in postwar Europe after the illiberal years of Fascism and Nazism? Or, as having penetrated the core of other historical moments and therefore marginalizing the achievements of other regions? Did everything truly change? And for whom did it change and in what ways? Or posed in reverse, what were the consequences for Western societies, and the world at large of historical events occurring in Africa, Asia and Latin America? Are those places marginal to the West’s conception of its own historical destiny? Posing these questions is not necessarily meant to repudiate the outlandish claims that have been made about May ’68; rather, it is to enable us to place it in historical context.

He sadly left too early, before he completed his grand, historical trilogy of exhibitions, which would have been another utterly monumental achievement for our time. But now, at least, we have the catalogue for “Postwar.” I believe this will be the definitive modern and contemporary art textbook that will inform the next generation, and that it will replace many older books narrated by the canon of the West. Just like the many bell-ringing sounds and scenes found in his exhibition “All the World’s Futures” at the 56th Venice Biennale, his lingering presence, spirit, and political urgencies in what he left for us will ring in perpetuity. 

What do you think of Hong Kong, now, and tomorrow, etc.?


Installation view of “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Installation view of “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

“A falling leaf returns to the roots.” This Chinese adage aptly describes the final days of one of the global art world’s most visionary figures, Okwui Enwezor, who passed away in Munich in March 2019. And now his body has been returned to his native Nigeria, surrounded by his closest family. 

During his lifetime, Okwui was a veritable nomad and true cosmopolite. Born in postcolonial Africa, he adopted New York and then Munich as his new homes. He was radically contemporary: a constant traveler across the world, eloquently cultivated, impeccably elegant and absolutely urbane. A curator, writer, editor, and teacher, he transgressed all kinds of boundaries—geographic, cultural, social, and political. He was a Hermes transmitting the defying voices that challenged the dominance of the Western canon with the aim to redefine a truly global art. Through poetry, essays, teaching, and exhibitions of various scales, he proposed and championed ever-renewing visions of how to make the world a borderless and peaceful place. 

Along with expanding the scopes of global art discourse, Okwui proposed that we probe the cultural and geopolitical roots of the fundamentally conflictual formation of the world, boldly confronting a global reality swinging between love and violence, happiness and disaster, hope and disillusion. In particular, he highlighted the trajectories of migration, colonization, and the collapse of the old world order that have occurred since the second half of the 20th century, and the continuous impact of this era on our understandings and imaginations of humanity’s present and future. In the process, Okwui, alongside his intellectual and artistic comrades of non-Western and Western backgrounds, demonstrated the fundamental contributions of artists, intellectuals, and activists in navigating the burning question of how to live in our time. He emphasized the critical role of the postcolonial subject, which he likened to a new type of humanist—a migrant, a translator-critic of modernity, and the maker of diverse, “alternative” modernities that resist the monopoly of global capitalism. He regularly directed his intellectual and especially his political explorations to Africa, or, more precisely, postcolonial “African-ness,” with its invention of Créolité and the struggle for civil rights across the Atlantic and the rest of the world during the “short 20th century” (to quote a term used by historian Eric Hobsbawm that had become the title of one of Okwui’s main exhibitions), namely the short period of the colonial independence movements. As a versatile art historian, Okwui invited his colleagues and collaborators to reposition their standpoints when examining the global past. This helped us further challenge and rewrite the history of Western modernism as a universal canon, and predict a new horizon of the future. 

Careful reconsiderations of historical constructs were evident in Okwui’s own curatorial projects, such as “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–65,” his 2016–17 exhibition at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, and “All the World’s Futures,” the central pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Among the last of his presentations, these events exemplified his innovative approach to curating. 

Highly ambitious and passionate, he articulated the tension between politics and poetry, breaking down the conventional approaches to space and time. Perhaps his most notable gesture of curatorial creativity came with his Documenta 11, which comprised five platforms over five years across Santa Lucia, Vienna, Lagos, and New Delhi, before the final culmination in Kassel in 2002. By prompting debates and sharing ideas and artistic “products,” Okwui wove a truly global network of exchange, forming a solid foundation for the further transformation of the “global scene.” 

My first encounter and collaboration with Okwui was a result of such a global conversation. In the spring of 1997, we finally met in person in Café Beaubourg, Paris, after reading and talking about each other for some time. He had just co-curated the groundbreaking exhibition “In/Sight, African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” with Octavio Zaya at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He was on a research trip to Paris for the second Johannesburg Biennial of which he was the artistic director. I had just opened “Parisien(ne)s” at London’s Camden Arts Centre, in collaboration with INIVA, and was working on a new project, “Hong Kong, Etc.” The latter explored Hong Kong’s then-imminent handover to China by the British as a historic catalyst for the change of the contemporary world and its vision—one that could develop new imaginations for a kind of “realizable utopia” and a world order beyond the logic of the nation-state. City-states, among other possible forms of sociopolitical structures, suddenly appeared to be viable options to build a better world in which people of different origins and cultures, and who had conflicting values, could coexist in less hierarchical, less totalitarian, and more peaceful ways. Okwui became deeply interested in the idea. In spite of the short timeframe and limited budget that he had access to, he immediately invited me to join the curatorial team of the Johannesburg Biennial. A few months later, “Hong Kong, Etc.” became a reality in the center of post-apartheid Johannesburg. The exhibition also included a series of interventions in suburban townships and, more interestingly, an interactive event on the internet. 

From that moment, our collaborations became a lifelong story. We worked closely together at the San Francisco Art Institute from 2006 to 2009, when I was director of exhibitions and public programs and he was dean of academic affairs at the school. After that, we continued to meet regularly on different occasions, such as at jury panels, conferences, and committee meetings in different parts of the world. Every time we encountered each other, I always managed to take away a great deal of new ideas because he was simply a brilliant source of inspiration. 

In this burning hot summer, while watching the millions of Hong Kong citizens who march to claim their rights to preserve their city for a better future, I couldn’t help but think of Okwui. I want to ask him: “What do you think of Hong Kong now, and tomorrow, etc.?”

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