It is not easy to explain in just a few sentences the significance of the loss of Okwui Enwezor. Certainly not for me personally. It is a fact I cannot internalize even now, more than a month after his much-too-early death. While his loss touches so many of the people he worked with over the last 30 years, more than anything, it is his uncompromising political voice that will be missed. The paradigmatic shift that occurred at Documenta 11, with its five platforms, was found in its entanglement of resolute discourses and their geopolitical localizations. It has since then no longer been possible to reduce artistic positions and their frames of reference to a Western perspective; Okwui masterfully handled the symbolic capital of discourses, artifacts, exhibitions, and their locations, never letting himself be co-opted. He understood the art world and its organs as a stage, a polis, an open terrain for the broadest swathe of participants who do not accept the realpolitik of the status quo and who subject both art history and history itself to critical revision. This became especially evident through his groundbreaking exhibition projects, conceived and curated from the late ’90s onwards. The political history of colonial and postcolonial constellations, as Okwui called them, and the positions taken by artists and other intellectuals within these, had occupied him since the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, “Trade Routes: History and Geography” (1997); “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994” (2001/2002); Documenta 11 (2001/2002); his Biennale in Seville; the Triennial in Paris; and leading to “All the World’s Futures,” the 56th Vennice Biennale (2015). Okwui’s interests served as a politics by alternative means. He was interested in historical evidence, and he understood that the complexity of such an undertaking could only engender undeniable presence via large-scale formats. This was clear in his Haus der Kunst exhibition “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” whose topics covered the entire globe, and which launched a trilogy whose two subsequent chapters – postcolonialism and post-communism – he will now, due to his early passing, no longer be able to complete.
He was working on numerous projects at home, in Munich, and from his hospital bed, until the very end. Okwui was always at work: reading, thinking, discussing, arguing, writing. He did this not in isolation but in the midst of an eclectic circle of friends and colleagues who visited him up until the day of his death. Okwui was a team worker, always on a mission, with seemingly infinite energy and strength. He highlighted that it was German institutions who made spaces, resources, and leadership roles accessible to him so that he could demand the paradigm shift that he deemed so essential. What many overlooked was his vulnerability. He was deeply affected by the persistent experience of racism and xenophobia, and he detected hypocrisy immediately.
Okwui was self-aware and did not take his professional position for granted. He felt that once his illness had caused his professional withdrawal, his achievements as director of the Haus der Kunst – an institution without a collection and which he helped achieve international relevance at the level of large museums through his ambitious global projects – were diminished due to the reemergence of structural problems that predated his time there. The reasons given to the media for the cancellation of the exhibitions by Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper made him furious.
Okwui was an elegant citizen of the world, charismatic and eloquent, but his subject position was that of an African person who refused the continuing aspirations of Western politics and economics to hegemony. The other strand of his exhibitions and publications thus concentrated on the art and potential of a postcolonial Africa. This included the art magazine NKA, which he founded and initially published with Olu Oguibe, and which continues to this day with Chika Okeke-Agulu and Salah Hassan.
Despite his advanced illness he was actively involved in new projects such as the first Ghanaian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and the newly founded Africa Institute in Sharjah, led by his long-time friend Hassan.
Okwui was impacted by a populism that was once again marked increasingly by xenophobia and racism, and he was also concerned about his daughter’s future. He wanted to keep on contributing, keep on intervening. If we want to truly honor Okwui’s vital positions and uncompromising approach, we must perpetuate his projects with just that same refusal to compromise.
Translation: Matthew James Scown
Ute Meta Bauer is the founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and Professor at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University. She was co-curator of Documenta11.