Okwui Enwezor, the renowned contemporary art curator, has died at age 55 after a years-long battle with cancer. Born in the city of Calabar in southern Nigeria in 1963, Enwezor moved to New York in 1982, began curating shows regularly in the 1990s, and went on to helm several of the world’s biggest exhibitions, including the 2015 Venice Biennale, the 2008 Gwangju Biennale, and the 2002 edition of the German quinquennial Documenta. He was the director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst from 2011 until last June, when he stepped down for health reasons. Enwezor was arguably the most influential art curator of the last three decades, helping to create a more expansive canon of contemporary art. He was also the first non-European curator of Documenta, and the first African-born curator in the history of the Venice Biennale.
In a 2017 interview with Freunde von Freunden, Enwezor concisely summarized his outlook for the future of curatorial practice and Western art:
A new generation of curators and museum professionals with different fields of knowledge is emerging. Maria Balshaw, the new director of the Tate in London, has made exhibitions on contemporary African art. I hope these people will give institutions the opportunity to think about how to complicate the narrative of societies with colonial affiliations, which necessarily are mixed societies. If we have an open mind, Western art doesn’t have to be seen in opposition to art from elsewhere, but can be seen in a dialogue that helps protect the differences and decisions that present the material, circumstances and conditions of production in which artists fashion their view of what enlightenment could be.
Prior to taking the reins from Chris Dercon at Haus der Kunst—where his final curatorial effort to open in his lifetime, a retrospective of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, was inaugurated last week—Enwezor had held a range of posts, including as an adjunct curator at the International Center of Photography in New York (where he curated the landmark South African photography exhibition “Rise and Fall of Apartheid”) and the dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute. He was also serving as a curatorial advisor for Ghana’s first-ever Venice Biennale pavilion, which will include El Anatsui’s work. His many standout exhibitions included “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim Museum’s outpost in downtown Manhattan in 1996, the second edition of the Johannesburg Biennale in 1996–97, “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994” at MoMA PS1 in 2002, the 2012 edition of the Palais de Tokyo’s triennial, and “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” at Haus der Kunst in 2016–17. In 1994, he founded the magazine NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1994.
In a 2005 interview with gallerist Michele Maccarone published in Bidoun, Enwezor said:
Where are the spaces today for the kind of artistic process of production that is homeless in institutions and in the market? Where do they take place? In the United States with the complete evisceration and eradication of so-called “authentic” spaces, we have seen disappear a cultural ecology where such things could take place. So it seems to me that when biennials become too institutionalized, or when we begin to sort of collapse the borders between biennials and art fairs then there is no space for these kinds of homeless ideas. That is why I will always insist and fight for this space of the biennials — these temporary structures that are quite fragile but are quite capable of hosting fugitive ideas and making them viable for whatever public may pass through.