Master of the Universe

Master of the Universe
Photo Credit To Phaidon

Okwui Enwezor and the Idea of the Curator as God

By TOYIN AKINOSHO

I had a brief encounter with Okwui Enwenzor, before he became a GOD.

It was at the Second Johannesburg Biennale, TWENTY ONE YEARS ago, in 1997.

 

I have attempted to update the story, more so since the subject went on to become the director of Documenta XI, the most powerful job in all of contemporary art and subsequently moved to higher stratospheres, becoming the most influential curator of contemporary art anywhere on the planet.

The first discussion we had after this conversation concerned his appointment as adjunct professor of art at the Art School of the University of Chicago. He had briefly responded to my congratulations, sent electronically, and explained what the job entailed and how he was going to perform the task.

Then, three months later, in December 1998, there came the announcement that the Finding Commission of Documenta had appointed him as the director of the 11th edition of the five-yearly exposition of cutting edge contemporary art.

This interview is being published on this new platform BookARTVILLE.com as a kind of archive material; an important early view of an important shaper of the course of contemporary art.

There are strong opinions about persons, institutions, which may or may not have changed. We ask the audience to read it mainly for the lessons it carries…

SO WE SIT HERE IN A CAFÉ at the Africus Institute in the Newtown Cultural Precinct, a neighbourhood populated by art and performance facilities in Johannesburg, South Africa. There’s a good view of the expansive lawn that separates the buildings of the institute from the South African Brewery (SAB) Centre across the road.

Located on the edge of the lawn is an installation by the Ghanaian artist Ata Kwami. It’s a kiosk, a commentary on the persistence of trade on the continent.

Okwui Enwezor, right, with Lucia Dogbeh, a linguist from Benin Republic

I order coffee and while the waiter at the bar is asking if my order was for two, Enwezor jumps up and yells: “No, that is four rand (about $0.80 then) each….Let us go up to my office.”

 

I don’t know what to make of that, whether to surmise that this New Yorker should be better off than having a problem with buying a cup of coffee for slightly less than an american dollar or whether Enwezor is just naturally a dramatic person.

My first inquiry on our getting to his office is the media response to the biennale. Enwezor had been having a swirl of bad press. And his own comments sometimes helped to fuel the misgivings. At the press conference before the opening, he had responded rather gruffly to a question about how such a huge international exhibition could be used to help South Africa’s infrastructurally underserved townships.

“I am not making an exhibition to solve the housing problems of Johannesburg”, he declared.

The Independent (of Johannesburg) gleefully made the comments the subject of its headline, cover story the Sunday after. The Mail and Guardian ran a story on him that was headlined Okwui Enwezor; the Curator as God. But the one that really vilified the exhibition was the lead article in the magazine segment of the Independent. Here, two reporters, warning from the outset that they were no art critics, thrashed the biennale from top down. Their title: Onan slays the Barbarians at the Johannesburg Banal.

“I had to remap. I’m the first African to handle an exhibition of this nature. And you shouldn’t do it in a way that shows it is expected that Africans should fail. I have not played any Pan African games, because what I want to come up with is What is Possible”.

 “I don’t pay much attention to the press here” Okwui quietly tells me, as the coffee arrives. “They are so mediocre. It’s a funny piece because it is so juvenile. There is no analysis of a single work in the exhibition. Mostly here the press just copy a piece from a press release and go talk about it”.

He is in a haste to change the topic. On this show there is no doubt the critic is pleased with himself.

“Each time that I go around this exhibition, I feel satisfied”, he says. “Our Education Programme is robust. Just today we had 150 participants. On Saturday, Sunday it was very busy. Lots and lots of school kids. One school kid saw that map thing (a crafted installation work featuring trade routes around the planet) and wanted to become an artist. Oh, if I could make a model of that work”.

The second Johannesburg Biennale is more than an exhibition of art. It includes a film programme and a series of active talk shops around the main themes of identity, otherness, displacement, multiculturalism, borderlessness, even the politics of mega-exhibits.

I ask Enwezor if he really believes in the notion of the curator as a god. It’s a statement that is readily bandied around the art circuit everywhere from New York to Bamako. Curators, especially the types that direct such mega-exhibits as the Sao Paulo Biennale, the Venice Biennale, the Documenta as well as scores of smaller but very intellectually assembled international shows featuring more than 40 artists from at least three continents, are considered extremely powerful. Thousands of artists want to have their works on view in the tens of major exhibitions around the world and see their art in print in the accompanying catalogues.

For now, Okwui parries the question.

“You can say that I am the boss, in the sense that people in the (Africus) Institute had to follow my lead. The first thing I had to do away with was the Nationalities…I didn’t believe in the National Pavilion thing. They were shocked when I told them that.

I did not limit myself to the rungs of Brooklyn. I went to the galleries, to Soho. I attended openings, met artists, spoke to them… visited their studios. I was immersed in the process of that intellectual analysis. I was a poet. I was reading a lot around New York. Organising poetry readings. Practicing poetry.

“Because it would have been easier and cheaper with National Pavilions. The countries involved would freight their own art works, we wouldn’t have to worry about how the works got here.

“I wanted to make a contemporary art exhibition with a critical focus and I felt that pavilions were not the way to go.”

Enwenzor appointed six co -curators with whom he decided on seven sub -themes around the main theme: Trade Routes, History and Geography. “I travelled extensively to 23 countries, meeting artists, different people. I came to the Biennale with an information bank. So even though I was new I didn’t lack knowledge. Because of the thing that I wanted to do, my job expanded to fundraising, writing proposals. It became clear that to do what I had to do I had to move to Johannesburg. We wrote to the countries to fund the trips for their artists”.

The British Council, for example, sponsored British artists; Keith Piper, Yinka Sonibare, Oladele Bamgboye etc. “They gave the money for shipping the artists, shipping the works, air ticket, accommodation…”

Not every country is keen to sponsor its own artists, though.

Okwui finds it dispiriting that his own country did not even acknowledge his letters. “It’s really sad”, he says, because “Nigeria is squandering a lot of opportunities. If the country wants to rehabilitate itself it has to have a strong cultural programme”.

It is time up for him to go into the main exhibition arena, where some visitors are waiting for the privilege of having the lead curator himself show them around. It is just a walk down the stairs to the adjoining building, a disused electrical facility building that has been converted into a vast exhibition space.

“I had to remap. I’m the first African to handle an exhibition of this nature. And you shouldn’t do it in a way that shows it is expected that Africans should fail. I have not played any Pan African games, because what I want to come up with is What is Possible”.

We walk past an installation work by the Jeanette Christensen of Norway. It’s a set of long benches made of gelatin. “This has just been installed. This is process art. For a Norweigian, the artist is up- turning the rules.

This work is anti Nordic, it’s transient; goes against all that idea of time and space…”

Enwezor is cut short by something he notices on the label on an installation work by Rivan Neuenschwander. “She’s no Brazil/USA. She’s U.K.. we have to change this”.

“You know that one woman came up to me and pulled my cheeks and said ‘Yes, that’s a good work”‘.

She’s a white woman?., I ask.

“Yes of course. You have to find a decent way to dismiss them. You should not give them any ammunition”

Okwui’s main claim to recognition is Nka, the journal of Contemporary African Art, of which he is founder and editor-in-chief. It’s a rigorously written, carefully edited publication specialising in an area that rarely showed up, at least until twenty years ago, on the main agenda for critical discourse. I ask him about the journal’s progress. “The magazine is in process of revamping. Nka is produced out of my apartment, in conjunction with friends Salah Hassan, Olu Ogibe., Matthew Debord. We all keep in touch. The problem is that we are all individually busy doing our things. It’s not possible for all of us to be in one room”. (All the other three were actually on ground at the Biennale, helping out with different parts of the programme).

the days of a singular curator need to be interrogated. We are making the Biennale an organic process whereby different positions can tangle

“I LEFT NIGERIA IN 1982, and of course, if what people want to know is that I studied art history, No. I studied Political Science. I have been writing since I was 10, primarily as a poet. I grew up at a particular time in New York that was about when anything could happen. Vigorous economy, Jean Basquat. Before then, in Nigeria, I hung out with some artists, mainly those who went to Institute Management Technology (IMT) in (the eastern Nigerian town of) Enugu. I was interested in decoration, post structuralism and critical theory and read copiously about it and participated in whatever debate was around the issues. My milieu was in the art world in New York”.

Okwui Enwezor, right, at Marcia Kure’s Tease exhibition with Hal Foster, a notable art historian at the Susan Inglett Gallery in New York

Nka came out of that experience. I was tired of hearing complaints, about not much coming in African art, African – American art; besides which artists were always asking me to write on their works for exhibition, etc….I have seen more than 8,000 exhibitions. I have had contact with the reviews, with the theories…There weren’t that many critical voices that were addressing what I was interested in…

“Then I came upon Olu Oguibe… irreverent, articulate, maverick. I think that was the turning point… I wanted to create a framework that many could come into”.

Okwui was briefly at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, also in eastern Nigeria. “You must understand that I spent exactly one term at the UNN, in 1980. And that really wasn’t a term. I grew up in a context where there were possibilities. I had contact with people. It wasn’t anything new…My father was a businessman… My Uncle was head of Faculty at UNN and other things”

Was the environment at UNN lacking in intellectual excitement?

“Not at all. The reason I dropped out: I was not, well..Naturally, I failed math… The only subject, the only subject I failed. The following year I passed my GCE. Already it was one term. I wasn’t interested in retaking JAMB (the admission examination). Also one of the reasons I went abroad was that I wanted to be part of the larger stream of things. I arrived in New York and I’ve been there ever since. New York is a formidable school… If you are not the intimated type who wants it safe. I played with everything in the fashion of the time. I played with the Punk thing. Coloured Hair….I travelled through the night scene rigorously. It was almost like a career … with the likes of (the poet and artist) Ike Ude who was a close buddy. If it seemed like one had a certain type of access because of the social context of meeting so many people and of being a participant observer… I did not limit myself to the rungs of Brooklyn. I went to the galleries, to Soho. I attended openings, met artists, spoke to them… visited their studios. I was immersed in the process of that intellectual analysis. I was a poet. I was reading a lot around New York. Organising poetry readings. Practicing poetry.

“I chanced upon curating and being in the art world out of necessity. I didn’t start off thinking I would be a curator. I had a particular experience in Nigeria. It was very vigorous, not as primitive as people would assume it to be; my contemporaries were interesting characters. I didn’t want to see that stifled and since I was so involved in the art scene I wanted to see it fashioned out, with elegant style”.

Having broken ground with Nka, Okwui Enwezor and Olu Oguibe began their ascent to the very centre of the contemporary art world. Their 1994 exhibition of African Photography at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is often considered as their “arrival”.

Okwui recalls: “We made a proposal to Guggenheim to make an exhibition of African art beyond artists who work in Africa… The transitional moment between Africa and the world. In fact, our proposal was more far reaching than what was approved. The photography exhibition was only a part of it. But that’s what they took…”

So what are the other projects he is working on? “One is a major end-of-century exhibition. It has nothing to do with Africa. It would be in one of the major museums in Germany. (The exhibition, titled, The Short Century, about independent movements in Africa from 1945 to 1994, opened in late 2000, three years after this interview took place and is currently in New York).

I challenge him to tell me what he considers the “wow factor” in the second Johannesburg Biennale. What exactly is he offering that may make it a little over the hilt than the other mega exhibits.

“I have tried not to make comparisons… not so much in fear of being labelled as arrogant as the fact that the other shows are in a different context. In coming here I have come to make a new paradigm. I don’t know if we have made a new paradigm, but we have made a move from the staging of national identities that Biennales often take.

In choosing to work with other curators we are saying that the days of a singular curator need to be interrogated. We are making the Biennale an organic process whereby different positions can tangle. We elected to make exhibitions, not pavillions , with each curator being responsible for his segment.

Does that mean the end of the dav of the curator as God?

“Curators have never been God. It’s a misrepresentation. This level of working is substantially glamorous, unlike Museum exhibition, but not when you are working at the bottom of the totem pole. The curator is not God. It’s not possible for the curator to be God”.

An enormous debate has swirled in African art circles, around Okwui Enwezor since he got noticed, first as publisher of Nka and then as a major curator. And he himself doesn’t shy away from argument. In 1995, he trashed the Nigerian section of the contemporary fine art exhibition of Africa 95, the huge season of African art in Britain. That section was curated by a painter/critic named Chika Okeke-Agulu, then a lecturer at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. A furious exchange of words ensued between Okwui and Okeke-Agulu, all published in Glendora, (then) Nigeria’s leading journal of the arts. At the primary level, the debate was about who is and who is not making the most relevant work of art in Africa. In the heat of the moment, Okeke-Agulu argued that the artists working at home in Nigeria were not in a rush to hop onto the postmodernist bandwagon as those artists in exile were keen to.

As Enwezor remembers it: “Chika made a bad exhibition. You can go back to the safety at home, where no one questions what you do. But here, if you make a bad exhibition we should engage it. I challenge Chika to tell me what he knows about postmodernism. I respect Chika as a smart young man. We should stop creating the dichotomy, we should realise that the fact that we are partly at home and abroad is part of our strength”.

“Uzo Egonu went back to Nigeria in 1945 only for two days. We should set up a bridge. Don’t let us say you can’t come back, you’ve been tainted by post modernity. We live in a complex and complicated world.”

Note: Chika Okeke-Agulu had since moved to Emory University, in Atlanta and scaled to the very top, becoming a Professor at Princeton, which is the “Iviest” of the Ivy League. Before then, he assisted Enwezor in curating The Short Century).

At the heart of the debate is what constitutes art, or for that matter, great art. It is one subject that never goes away. I inform Okwui of my discomfort with his promotion of the Ivorian artist Freredric Bruly Boubare, who in my view, creates stuff that appear like sketches from children’s drawing room, and is being eulogised for creating a new language of art.

In response Okwui appears almost angry; “It’s a whole cosmology that this guy is creating. His work is involved with language, with mysticism, philosophy. To read his work at the level of representation is to be shallow to the extreme. It is the same thing that people do about Fela (the late Nigerian music superstar). He is a mad man, they say and they are not talking about the quality of art.”

Okwui is as dismissive about much of what goes on as art practice in Nigeria as he is excited about works like Boubare’s and (Benin Republic’s) Georges Adeagbo’s. “The problem of all those Nigerians at home is Uli and Ona …… people are just making decoration, they are not even painting… And then they want to make spurious assertions”.

SINCE OKWUI HAS COME into his distinguished career via New York, and he has always done work that help define a people’s identity, I want to know what he thinks about Nationality, the idea of Nationhood.

The Signature Gallery is a badly hung gallery. It’s like a fetish house. The works have no room to breathe. As for art practice there is very little experiments with form, with material in Contemporary Nigerian art

He tells me he considers himself a “post national citizen”. I wonder, I tell him, what that means. “There’s a degree of Ambivalence in what it means to belong to National entity… The ramifications under which national identities are constituted today must be interrogated. For someone like me, what does it mean to be home: I’ve been in New York for 16 years…So would I say I come from Enugu? Or is it Okpozo? Home has become a mobile practice that’s not constituted on territorial level.”

Still, he lets it slip that he comes “home”(to Nigeria) now and again.

“I was at home (his own words) last in 1995 and I went to all the galleries in Lagos. The Signature Gallery is a badly hung gallery. It’s like a fetish house. The works have no room to breathe. As for art practice there is very little experiments with form, with material in Contemporary Nigerian art. Critics, Curators must be challenged to make new proposition for the next century…I saw the National Gallery of Art. It’s a sweaty oven. Things, poorly hung. It’s a bloody disgrace. The level of professionalism is so low. What kind of criticism is being practiced? There’s no debate. People should stop masturbating. Why fight with us who are so called overseas Nigerians? As submissions to Nka, I do get certain types of paper and they are so poorly written… I can’t..”

So what would be his idea of restructuring the National Gallery of Art in Nigeria? ” I can’t tell you now., until I come. The Government must put money. The government must take out the position… The government has a great deal of responsibility… You must allow room for experiments. You must allow room for new idea.

BACK TO THE JOHANNESBURG BIENNALE. We are finally walking out of the Alternating Currents exhibition. Okwui must catch up with some other curators at the Johannesburg Gallery, located in the heart of Town, where one of the seven shows is taking place. I ask him how did he actually got the job. “I never wanted this position. I was almost conscripted to apply for the job by various people who thought that I could bring a certain edge to this articulation. Initially I was invited as a member of the committee to select the Director. I was given the option to apply myself. After the initial hesitancy, I made a proposal I was short listed. And this is the fruit of the journey.”

“Then I came upon Olu Oguibe… irreverent, articulate, maverick. I think that was the turning point… I wanted to create a framework that many could come into”.

Is it time to cork Champagne?”…. “The work never stops… It’s very important to understand that one must not rest on one’s laurel..

“It’s a professional work. It’s a very difficult industry. If I begin to think that a work is done, then one might lapse into redundancy. I’m relieved that no major mishaps occurred. But that also means that from the outset one was very attentive. I wanted to make this work on the highest professional level. I think I have succeeded with very small but dedicated team of people. Of course one’s always happy when you’ve earned the admiration of your peers…”.

Enwezor’s forthcoming projects, he tells me, include a book of essays he is editing with Olu Oguibe. It’s titled Reading the Contemporary: African art from theory to practice. Scholars like Harvard’s Anthony Appiah and Colin Richards of South Africa’s University of Witswatersrand would contribute. (The book actually came out as scheduled in 1999, two years after this interview).

Lastly, I ask him, “this job may lead you to the ultimate, Documenta. Would you do it, if you are asked to…?”..

Laughter. Surprise…

“I have done Documenta already. I spoke at Documenta

“I would listen to different job offers and we’d see…

“This year, I contributed to the catalogue of the Venice Biennale and 100 day- 100 guests of Documenta. Their talk fest.. Each day they had a different lecturer. It was broadcast live on the internet. Gives the opportunity of speaking to hundreds of thousands of people.

 

Marriage?

“I was married. I’m divorced. ..I’m not opposed to marriage. I did it for 7 years… It wasn’t because of lack of kids…”

 

Are you going to try again…

“If you send me a Yoruba girl…”

 

What do you do in your spare time?

“I don’t swim.. I play Polo…”

 

 

 

 

 

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