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For Okwui Enwezor by Ulrich Wilmes

There is beauty amid suffering,

Joy in grief,

Hope in despair

and new life even in death.

(Igbo saying)

In Okwui Enwezor, the world has lost a brilliant curator and influential interpreter of our contemporary situation. The task of reviewing his work and paying tribute to his achievements is best left to those of my fellow eulogists who were his companions for longer stretches of his journey. I had the privilege of being his close associate for seven precious years, during which a professional relationship blossomed into friendship – a gift for which I feel deep gratitude.

Okwui Enwezor was a good man, fortis in re, suavis in modo, and so I want to recall, first and foremost, the open-mindedness with which he encountered people. An embodiment of the idea of “charisma,” he was gifted with a sharp mind, supreme erudition, exquisite elegance, and impeccably urbanity, and when he entered a room, you felt the atmosphere immediately transformed:

“Hi, I’m Okwui!” was how he usually introduced himself. You knew right away that the characteristic qualities that life had instilled in him rested on a foundation of intrinsic characteristics – approachability, civility, and a genuinely curious interest in his interlocutors chief among them. The most powerful sign of this atmospheric shift, however, was his infectious and heartfelt laugh – and he liked to laugh – which endeared him to everyone he spoke to.

After a brief first meeting on the periphery of Documenta 11, we got together in October 2010 during an opening reception at the Tate Modern, and arranged to sit down and chat about his potential interest in taking the helm at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. The conversation took place two weeks later in New York and it quickly turned out that my mixed feelings – why should a curator with engagements all over the world want to move to provincial Bavaria? – were completely unfounded.

Germany held a special place in Okwui’s heart. Working on the exhibition “The Short Century” at Munich’s Villa Stuck and then on Documenta 11, he had found in Germany a “second intellectual homeland,” as he put it. Beyond these projects, he felt profound admiration for the history of German thought and was fascinated by the significance of Germany’s postwar experience for the construction of a new European and global order. In this light, it was not difficult to see why the Haus der Kunst, with its fraught history, promised to be the perfect place for him. What made the position even more appealing was that it would give him the latitude to put his stamp on a renowned institution with an ambitious and focused program.

From his first day at the Haus der Kunst, his foremost objective was to open the art world’s eyes to the cultural heritage of all parts of the world. He was, in this exquisite sense, a globalizer. He sought to bring together people and ideas that wanted nothing to do with one another; to exclude nothing that, by breaking ideological molds, might offer us an opportunity to expand and enrich our understanding of the contemporary world. He was not interested in turning the relationship between the art world’s metropolitan centers and peripheries on its head, in playing off world art against Western art. His aspiration was instead to initiate a candid dialogue between the two, to draw attention to the fact that Western art, though a virulent segment of global art, was just one contribution among many and diverse others.

His major projects made this aspiration clear. The exhibition “Postwar,” for example, set out to survey “Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965.” The concept was a hubristic one, and its realization presented daunting challenges, but Okwui was fearless. The show featured 350 works by 218 artists from 65 countries, though one might have selected a different set of 350 works by a different roster of 218 artists without altering much of the show’s substance. It was to be the first in a series of exhibitions on the global history of art in the second half of the 20th century; the second and third chapters were to be devoted to the eras of postcolonialism and post-communism. The trilogy would have been a home run for Okwui, a summation of the field he had staked out and charted throughout his career, and it would have laid out for an audience the fruits of his own research, as well as that of many of his colleagues and friends. He did not live to see this ambition fulfilled.

His parting gift to us, then, is the comprehensive retrospective of the œuvre of the great Ghanaian artist El Anatsui on which he worked until the very end with his friend, confidant, and longtime collaborator Chika Okeke-Agulu. “Triumphant Scale,” the breathtaking show’s deliberately grandiose title, also encapsulates Okwui’s understanding of the Haus der Kunst as an architectural legacy of the past, and a vision for how to learn from that past for the present.

It was in Okwui’s nature to think and act on a grand scale, drawing on a vast archive of knowledge that commanded the utmost admiration (it could also be intimidating at times). Working with him on a daily basis and speaking to him in private, I came to appreciate how he would always consider a particular problem in light of larger questions. He was keen to keep his collaborators abreast of his thinking and share his expertise. Still, discussions with him were not always easy, and one of his favorite phrases that I myself heard on many an occasion was, “Sorry, but I completely disagree!” He could be argumentative – yet he never bullied. On the contrary, contentious debates brought out his judiciousness and diplomatic savvy.

To hear the softer voices, one must first be quiet. (Igbo)

And when Okwui did speak, he would be sure to lighten his arguments with witty asides and his inimitable roaring laugh.

Okwui’s virtually inexhaustible supply of Igbo proverbs was legendary. I kept telling myself to write them down but almost never managed to do it. Then again, the uncanny accuracy with which these sayings fit into what he was trying to say now and then made me doubt whether a particular parable really had roots in Igbo traditions; I suspect that he just made some of them up on the spot. Here is an Igbo wisdom that I know to be authentic:

When an old man in Africa dies, a library burns to the ground.

Okwui died too young, but there can be no doubt that one of the world’s most encompassing libraries perished with him.

Visual art was not his first love. After he obtained his degree in political science, he dedicated himself to his passion for poetry and poetics; hence his devotion to language and writing as far more than the lowly tools of everyday communication. He employed words like surgical instruments, dissecting his experiences in the realm of the visible and sharing them with others. Okwui’s native language was Igbo, and it was important to him to stay fluent in it. It gave him great pleasure to speak it with relatives and friends, and he was delighted when these opportunities presented themselves on his errands in Munich, bumping into compatriots or seeing his Nigerian barber at a salon near the train station.

After leaving Nigeria for the United States in 1982 to pursue his studies, he had worked hard to master his second language, English, until he was able to express his ideas in it with the complexity and nuance he demanded of himself. To his vexation, he never achieved the same articulateness in German, despite his strong ties to the country; he was unwilling to settle for speaking it well enough to make conversation. What was a reflection of his respect for the language was construed by some in Munich – including some who barely bothered to pronounce his name correctly – as ignorance.

Okwui liked Munich a great deal and prized the city’s rich cultural heritage. It became his home after he gave up his apartment in Brooklyn and moved his life to Europe. He conquered his new territory on foot, venturing out from Hildegardstraße to Maximilianstraße and Viktualienmarkt, where he became one of the regulars whom the grocers greeted by name, and further out into Schwabing with its English-language bookstores and the Kunstareal. He also felt himself drawn to sites like the Alter Südfriedhof, a cemetery that was of particular interest to him as a work of the architect Hans Döllgast. He proudly showed off his residence permit, and coming back from a trip abroad, when the official at passport control would demand to know the purpose of his stay in Munich, he took great pleasure in being able to reply, “I live here!”

His genuine interest in Munich was evident in his first project at the Haus der Kunst: an exhibition about the legendary record label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) and its founder, Manfred Eicher. This contribution to the field of “cultural archaeology” was accompanied by a series of concerts featuring some of the world-famous musicians who had been associated with the label since the late 1960s. Subsequent projects brought collaborations with other institutions in the city, including the unforgettable European debut of Matthew Barney’s monumental film River of Fundament at the Bavarian State Opera on Max-Joseph-Platz.

In the last extended interview he gave, in August 2018, Okwui spoke about his life and work in Munich over the years, recalling many positive as well as some negative experiences. Without complaining, he expressed his concern over political developments in general and shifts in cultural policy in particular that he had observed. He also mentioned instances of tactless racism in everyday life, patterns of behavior that those who perpetuated them were often unaware of, or downplayed. Having arrived in the US at the tender age of 19, Okwui was only too accustomed to these patterns; he noticed them but did not let them affect him. Some readers nonetheless took exception to the apprehensions he had expressed in his last interview, writing to ask what gave him the right “to talk like that about my country.” He read these letters with his characteristically amused sangfroid, taking no satisfaction in the confirmation of what he had said about his experiences.

A bearded man should not blow on a fire. (Igbo)

What kept Okwui up at night, by contrast, was the diminishing respect in his city for the work done at the Haus der Kunst, which had emerged as one of the world’s most renowned institutions of contemporary art under the leadership of his predecessors Christoph Vitali and Chris Dercon; a transformation that Okwui sought to build upon. He was deeply worried, he said, by the growing indifference to the objects and ideas produced and presented at the museum when they did not cater to the hardened expectations of a saturated and hedonistic public.

It is indeed impossible to miss the fact that several “isolated incidents” in recent years have begun to look like a pattern, suggesting the growing influence that political decisionmakers and cultural administrators exercise over choices that go to the heart of what museums do.

If all you do is look back, you will never make progress. (Igbo)

When we met several times in the months before his death, these things had begun to fade, and we spoke little of them. Until the very end, his focus was on the future. We talked about projects that he was working on or that we were hoping to realize together; as always, we deliberated, made plans, and discussed, agreed and disagreed, got excited and laughed.

Rare were the moments when Okwui opened up about his private fears. During one of our last conversations, we got to talking about our school years. Needless to say, our memories were very different, and he laughed as he recalled how thrilled he had been when, as the only boy from his village, he was sent off to boarding school, because independence from his family meant a kind of freedom, and more importantly, because he loved the dapper school uniforms.

His laugh has fallen silent, and the sound of the world is poorer for it.

Ulrich Wilmes