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Nigerian Art Historian, curator, Okwui Enwezor dies at 55

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Okwui Enwezor


Death has struck again in the art house, this time, claiming Okwui Enwezor. The revered Nigerian-born art historian and curator died after a long battle with cancer.

Enwezor, the deeply influential Nigerian curator, poet, and educator who established new ways of thinking about contemporary art with powerful shows including the 2015 Venice Biennale and documenta 11 in 2002, died at age 55. He is the only African-born curator to organise the two prestigious exhibitions.

The Haus Der Kunst, where he was artistic director from 2011 to 2018, confirmed his death.Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said Enwezor “will go down in history as one of the greatest curators of all time.”He was born as the youngest son of an affluent family of Igbos in Awkuzu in Nigeria in 1963. In 1982, after a semester at the University of Nigeria, Enwezor moved to the Bronx at the age of 18. In 1987 he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political sciences at the New Jersey City University.

When Enwezor graduated, he moved downtown and took up poetry. He performed at the Knitting Factory and the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. Enwezor’s study of poetry led him through language-based art forms like Conceptual Art to art criticism. Teaming up in 1993 with fellow African critics Chika Okeke-Agulu and Salah Hassan, he launched the triannual Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art from his Brooklyn apartment; “Nka” is an Igbo word that means art but also connotes to make, to create. He recruited scholars and artists such as Olu Oguibe to edit the inaugural issue and write for it.

After putting on a couple of small museum shows, Enwezor had his breakthrough in 1996 as a curator of In/sight, an exhibit of 30 African photographers at the Guggenheim Museum. In/sight was one of the first shows anywhere to put contemporary art from Africa in the historical and political context of colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states.

Enwezor was the director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany. He also had the roles of adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography in New York City, and Joanne Cassulo Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.

In 2013, Enwezor was appointed curator of the Venice Biennale 2015, making him the first African-born curator in the exhibition’s 120-year history.

Previously, Enwezor was the artistic director of the Documenta 11 in Germany (1998–2002), as the first non-European to hold the job. He also served as artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale (1996–97), the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporaneo de Sevilla, in Seville, Spain (2006), the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008), and the Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo (2012). He also served as co-curator of the Echigo-Tsumari Sculpture Biennale in Japan; Cinco Continente: Biennale of Painting, Mexico City; and Stan Douglas: Le Detroit, Art Institute of Chicago.

In an interview last August, Enwezor said he was “still optimistic and full of hope” despite the cancer diagnosis that led him to leave the Haus der Kunst. And even though he had been undergoing treatment for more than three years, he still found time to organize exhibitions. This month, the Haus der Kunst, which he left amid controversies including a budgeting shortfall, opened his survey of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. Enwezor was noticeably absent from the opening.

Throughout his career, Enwezor put special emphasis on expanding the contemporary art canon to include artists from around the world. His 2017 exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” included nearly 220 artists from 65 countries. He was known for his expansive exhibitions (his Venice Biennale included 136 artists) and his conceptual rigor. His international legacy included leading the 1996 Johannesburg Biennale and the South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale in 2008.


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