IN REFLECTION OF…
OKWUI ENWEZOR, Curator, Art Critic, Poet, and Historian
On March 15, 2019, the earth moved in a way that it has not in some time. On this day the one who restored our place in artful representation, the great OKWUI ENWEZOR made his transition. Enwezor, one of the most influential people in the art world, ushered in African, Asian, and Latin American artists into decisively narrow and predominately Eurocentric lenses.
The year was 1996, and New York was glorious. The Guggenheim Museum was the talk of the city’s majors for its showing of an exhibition of contemporary works by 30 photographers from Africa including SEYDOU KEITA, and SAMUEL FOSSO ranging from 1940s to present day . The pieces were expansive, no single colonial interpretation of blackness to be found. The man responsible for this quake was Enwezor, but I did not know it then. In fact, I did not know then that the context of historical and contemporary placement, that had eluded people of African descent in the highest echelons of the medium, now had a pioneer. Over the past twenty years, the effects of Enwezor can be seen in every gallery and tastemaker IG. He placed us in contemporary art; making collectors and inspiring curators, but above all, he built brotherhoods each step of the way; opening the door with grace and purpose.
His passing, yes, is a societal one for most but greater is the personal for those who knew him well. To them, we give this forum to reflect upon the man they knew and loved.
Igbo, Son, and Father
Co-Founder of the Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art
Artistic Director of the Second Johannesburg Biennial
Former Artistic Director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst
First non-European curator of Documenta
First African-born director of the Venice Biennale in the exhibition’s 120-year history
Artistic Director of the Seville Biennial de Arte Contemporaneo
Artistic Director of the Kwangju Biennial in South Korea
Artistic Director of Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo
Friend, and Champion
RASHID JOHNSON, Artist
“Okwui is and was one of the most gifted curators I’ve ever known. He saw the spaces between the margins and found ways to give voice to those whose genius was often overlooked.”
TONY OKUNGBOWA, Film Producer and DJ
Besides teaching me and a generation of others the importance of contemporary African Art and Contemporary Art, Okwui Enwezor was my brother my friend and a mentor. He had a love for life that he showed everywhere he went with exquisite taste in art, food, fashion, and music … even though some would disagree on that last one.
I met him through CARL HANCOCK RUX in the early 90s in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. This is when Brooklyn was still affordable, fun and incredibly creative.The neighborhood comprised of young academics, actors, musicians, directors, and producers mixed in with the older generation of school teachers, professors, jazz artist, etc. and were almost all people of color. We all knew each other, we all cared for each other. It was the truest definition of community. I remember the legendary dinner parties at Okwui’s house, he loved to cook. I was always bound to meet someone interesting and cool. Those were the kind of persons that gravitated toward Okwui. He always looked out for me constantly introducing me to people and recommending me for work. I eventually moved to Los Angeles, but every time I went back to New York, I would stay at his place. There’re so many stories I could tell you about him, but these two stand out for me and illustrate who he was.
He was working at the San Francisco Art Institute, and at the same time he had a fellowship, I believe at the Getty, so he would come up over the weekend. If he had time, we would get together. This weekend we spent the day together and ended up back at my home. He proceeded to tell me stories of the 70s and 80s music and show me how they danced in nightclubs across the world. He described the fashion in such great detail. He was such a great storyteller that I was transported to the places he spoke so fondly of. You see we both share the love of disco music. He reminded me of the band “Rice and Beans Orchestra” and their big hit ‘Dancing Vibration." He spoke to me of happy thoughts when bands like “Bony M” (a staple in Nigeria and West Africa in the '70s) came on, the music was the soundtrack of his youth growing up in Nigeria, come to think of it was mine as well. I dropped him back at the Getty. When I got back home, I put a playlist together, one that he asked me for, but I don’t remember ever delivering it to him.
Then there was the time he invited me to the opening and dinner of the Matthew Barney exhibition downtown LA. This was a big deal, and the Who's Who of the LA Art World were in attendance. It was a great evening. I felt proud sitting with him at dinner along with his friend and his daughter. Afterward, we went to Giorgio’s nightclub in West Hollywood to listen to disco music. By this time, Okwui was in remission from cancer but he was not full at full strength. We had fun that night, and that's how I always will remember him perfectly dressed in a black suit with the skinny tie the crisp white shirt. The perfect emanation of style that he was and all the while generous, sitting down when we were dancing to catch his breath or rest, and insisting he wasn’t ready to go because he saw us having fun when he could’ve easily been ready to leave. I spoke to him a number of times before he passed but not enough times. I should have seen him while he was sick in Germany, but I never made it. There are many reasons or excuses, but the main one was fear, fear that I would lose someone so dear to me. Whenever I called, I would burst into tears, and I didn't want him to see me like that in his fight against cancer. I would always say, ‘I was sorry, sorry for not being there, sorry for letting time drive a gap between us, sorry for not being in touch more, sorry for crying when I should’ve been stronger.’ He would say you're crying because you care, don't worry, stay strong. He was more concerned about how I was doing, that was Okwui for you.
I miss my friend, my brother, my mentor there’ll never be another like him, a true Renaissance man see you on the other side brother rest in peace
ADRIAN PIPER, Artist
None of us can ever know what it was like for him to experience, develop, and exercise his enormous creative and intellectual capacities with full confidence in their power on the one hand, yet to be the unremitting target of envy and malevolence from the mediocre for the exceptional quality of his achievements on the other, because he never discussed it. When directly attacked, he defended himself with dignity and self-control, choosing his words carefully. The rest he bore in silence. I knew more about what he had to bear than I knew him, because the mediocre conscientiously showered poison-tipped arrows of gossip and disparagement in all directions, and because he never complained about them. He just did more great work, making his way calmly among those who flaunted their putative liberality on matters of race by virulently attacking him, because of course if they had been racist, they instead would have patronized him with excessive compliments, right? I prayed that he was as impervious to the poison as he seemed, but didn’t see how that was possible because there was so much of it.
I experienced him in person as a private, courtly, generous and brilliant colleague who beamed when I informed him that we had our Igbo heritage in common, and smiled whenever I reminded him about the traditional virtues of the Igbo warrior. At the dance party after the opening of Documenta 11, I saw that his modest demeanor concealed great physical grace and stamina; and that he was a proud, upright man who felt honored, rather than aggrandized, by the intrinsic worth of what he had achieved there, namely that all of us, who would not have been there were it not for him, in fact, were there, to honor him. He honored me, in turn, by accepting and welcoming me for who I was. I watched and cheered and prayed for him from the sidelines as he fought his way through and beyond each one of the traps, snares, and set-ups staged by the mediocre, on to one world-class victory after another. He broke through so many barriers of exclusion in his variegated professional activities that in the end, all that could be left of him, in any case, was a cloud of dust for the mediocre to choke on. I preserved my image of him as the invincible, Stoic Igbo warrior for as long as I could. But even when that was no longer possible, it was clear that his conquests were permanent and could not be reversed, because we will be there to defend them.
Source for Adrian and Rashid remembrance; Art Net News.