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Okwui Enwezor… All the world’s future’s gone

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Okwui Enwezor at the 2015 Venice Biennale

When the 58th Venice Art Biennale themed, May You Live In Interesting Times, opens on May 11, 2019, in Italy, the shadow of Okwui Enwezor will cast over the African contingent.

Enwezor, who was the event’s artistic director at its 56th edition, in 2015, died on March 15 this year at the age of 55. He was the first director of African descent.

The 2015 show, themed All the World’s Futures, had what observers noted as the highest number of African artists participating. Of the 139 artists, 35 blacks came from Africa, the U.S and Europe with nearly half of them based at home.

For the 2019 edition, only six artists of African descents have been listed. They are, Nigeria’s Akunyili Crosby and Nkanga Otobong; Mehretu Juli is from Ethiopia, while Kenya has Armitage Michael. Also listed are South Africa’s Muholi Zanele and Wa Lehulere Kemang.

African countries with pavilions include, Ghana, Algeria and Madagascar. Others are Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

A former director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, Enwezor, at every opportunity of his career in the west had made contemporary statements of the 21st century contents.

After he curated Seville and Gwangju Biennials in 2006 and 2008 respectively as well as the Paris Triennale in 2012, the ultimate, Venice Arts Biennale was just a stretch of hand away. And when Enwezor got it, he confirmed that his pre-Venice Biennale works such as, the Documenta 11 and others were not fluke.

His artistic weaving and presentation of the diverse contents at the 56th Venice Art Biennale would remain memorable in the history of the event. Enwezor, among other paradigm shift, stringed American painter Kerry James Marshall’s work with video installation of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu; and Iraqi video artist, Hiwa K., British film-maker John Akomfrah and the Indian Raqs Media Collective in cohesive presentation of each were some of the diversity values that Enwezor brought to the event.

However, sections of the western press were unimpressed with Enwezor’s adventure of converging diversity in All the World’s Futures. For example, Artsy, an influential art newspaper concluded in its review of the event: “Whether or not you leave Venice a Marxist, the havoc is impossible to ignore.”

For another medium, Frieze.com, creativity was viewed through racism prism. “Colour is an important signification device, not only for the artist but for Enwezor, too. The dominant colour palette of the curator’s imperial disquisition on sovereignty is black,” Sean O’Toole wrote in a review for Frieze.com.

Having Enwezor as artistic director of the 56th edition, which had large number artists of African descents must have inspired the presence of some artists in the 57th edition in 2017. Interestingly, Nigeria made its debut in 2017.

Jelili Atiku was among artists who showed at the event.

He had no opportunity of working with Enwezor directly at that level. But Atiku, one of Africa’s top performance artists, in a tribute, described the late curator as ‘Igi-nla’ (Big tree in the forest). “I can only describe or liken the essence of Enwezor to our world to the potency of ‘Igi nla’, the enigmatic tree. Okwui will forever remain as ‘Igi nla’ in the heart of the art of the world; and also as a giant visionary curator and art-critic that broadened, redefined, reshaped new approaches to the art of the world, especially the contemporary art from Africa. He was a pride of the world!”

Prof Chika Okeke-Agulu of African Art & African Diaspora Art, Princeton University, U.S. was among closest professionals to Enwezor.

“For Enwezor, art functioned as a tool to interpret, confront, and understand the social and political present and its historical context, but without abandoning the power of its aesthetic value,” stated Okeke-Agulu of Princeton’s Department of Art & Archaeology / Department of African American Studies.

“In less than three decades of curatorial practice he established a permanent and game-changing legacy — countless exhibitions, conferences, scholarly books and artist monographs, and new cultural initiatives, coupled with impactful contributions to juries, advisory bodies, and curatorial teams at arts institutions around the world — the lasting effects of which will be felt by artists and curators for many generations to come.”

Listed among exhibitions he curated are: The Short Century (2001), Archive Fever (2008), The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (2013) and Postwar (2016).


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