Extraordinarily warm-hearted, bursting with energy, always entertaining, Okwui was full of life, and it is hard to accept that he is no longer with us. It breaks my heart to think that he was denied the joy of raising his daughter, who will grow up without her father. And his untimely death puts a sudden end to a stellar career as a curator of groundbreaking exhibitions. From his unforgettable Documenta 11 (2002) with its “platforms,” which were deliberately not held in Kassel, to the superb “Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” at the Haus der Kunst in Munich (2016–17), which spun art as a global history, it has always struck me as the defining strength of his projects that they drew direct connections between art history and the world at large. This decidedly political take on his field let him repudiate widely accepted dichotomies, such as distinctions between apparently Western and purportedly indigenous art, or between postcolonial and modernist narratives.
Take his 2015 Venice Biennale, held under the motto “All the World’s Futures.” The exhibition concluded with a presentation in the final gallery of paintings by Georg Baselitz, controversial because of a history of sexist remarks. In a brilliant move, Okwui debunked the ostensible antithesis between highly marketable Western art and non-Western artifacts. Baselitz’s raw and monumental pictures with their upside-down figures drew attention to the fact that literally everything can be turned on its head: a Western postwar painter was free to flirt with the aura of the primitive by slathering icky flesh tones on black canvases, while many of the non-Western artists featured in the same show presented work that fits squarely inside a formal canon generally regarded as Western. Okwui’s exhibitions rarely failed to engage the viewer by asking the hard questions, and reviews of his work regularly sparked lively discussions, including in the pages of this magazine.
In person, too, he was deeply serious about what he did, and as his friend, I relished the opportunity to debate with him on issues we both cared about; our conversations often continued in long text message exchanges. He was also an excellent (and unfailingly supportive) adviser on how to negotiate better conditions (financial and otherwise) for my own work. Above all, he was never the kind of art world professional who sets aside, and so effectively disavows, all private concerns; on the contrary, whenever we met, his first question was always how my daughter was doing. Although we may find some consolation in the thought that he has been delivered from pain and illness, he is, and will continue to be, sorely missed: irreplaceable as a leading thinker on the politics of art and intrepid champion of unconventional and ambitious ideas, he was also, to many of us, a dear friend. We have gathered a selection of obituary essays that illuminate facets of this singular man’s character and survey his prolific output by recalling some of his most outstanding achievements.