Cosmopolitan Master of Art

Okwui Enwezor has brought a new international dimension to contemporary art in Europe and the USA. In 2011 he was appointed head of the Haus der Kunst in Munich.
by Oliver Heilwagen

As curator of documenta 11, Okwui Enwezor was one of the most influential people in the art world from 1998 to 2002. The documenta, which takes place every five years in Kassel, is regarded as the world’s most important exhibition of contemporary art. Mr. Enwezor has now returned to Germany: in October 2011 he was appointed head of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, initially for five years. It is one of Germany’s most important institutions for contemporary art. This is by no means a comeback for him: over the past decade Enwezor has constantly impressed with numerous exhibitions, festivals and academic lecture series. Art Review magazine ranks him at 52 in its guide to the 100 most powerful figures in the current contemporary art scene. However, Enwezor’s success is not based on a traditional art education: in 1987 he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in political sciences at New Jersey City University. He was 19 when he emigrated to the United States in 1982. He spent his childhood and youth as the son of a prosperous Igbo family in southeastern Nigeria. In 1967, when he was four years old, the Nigerian Civil War broke out, and his family had to move home 45 times in the next three years. This nomadic existence has shaped Enwezor: “I learned what it meant to be ‘the other’, even within my own home.”

As a student in the USA he began to take an interest in art. It occurred to him that contemporary African artists were generally ignored. To change things, in 1994 he founded a magazine, NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, which he edits together with Salah Hassan and Chika Okeke-Agulu. Enwezor soon gained a reputation as one of the few experts on non-European contemporary art in the western world and rapidly received his first commissions as a curator. His breakthrough came in 1996 with “In/sight” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he presented 30 photographers from Africa. After this he became artistic director of the Johannesburg Biennale.

In Europe he made a name for himself in 2001 with “The Short Century”. The exhibition went on show at the Villa Stuck in Munich and the Martin Gropius Building in Berlin before travelling to Chicago and New York. The subtitle “Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945 – 1994” clearly illustrated Enwezor’s intentions: reminding the former colonial rulers in Europe about the negative legacies they had left behind in the African continent. However, some critics complained that Enwezor was staging an agitprop show beneath the guise of art and culture: it supposedly celebrated nostalgic heroes of the decolonization process ranging from Nkrumah to Lumumba, whilst neglecting to analyze the continuing effects of neo-colonialism and the complicity of African elites. Similar voices were heard in the run-up to documenta 11. He designed the event as a series of conferences on four continents which concluded with the exhibition in Kassel. It was a premiere: never before had so many flashpoints of all kinds been addressed. It was the first globalized documenta. Enwezor managed to re-politicize contemporary art which, for 30 years, had focused strongly on academic debate. And he broadened the exhibition’s horizons: for the first time artists from emerging and developing countries received a more prominent position.

Since then Enwezor has held numerous positions as curator and visiting professor. But the Haus der Kunst is the first institution that he will head. The building’s past has been notably varied: it was opened in 1937 as a centre for art under the Nazi regime. After the Second World War it was used by the US Army as an officers’ mess, and after 1949 it became the venue for alternating exhibitions of contemporary art. In 2012 an exhibition will be spotlighting these early years to mark the building’s 75th anniversary. In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Enwezor announced that in future the institution would have an international programme with outstanding and innovative artists. Apart from this, he is keeping his cards close to his chest as far as concrete plans are concerned. The elegantly clad cultural manager, who cultivates perfect performances, prefers to talk about his work rather than about himself. Nevertheless, it is known that in his private life he has a daughter with the art therapist Muna El Fituri. They live in New York. At the moment Enwezor is commuting and improving his knowledge of German in language courses at the Goethe-Institut. Eventually, he intends settling in Munich: he appreciates the “lightheartedness and self-assurance” of the Bavarian capital, and he told art, the influential German magazine, that he doesn’t view Munich as a transit station.

So, that’s good news for the city. People are hoping that the image of the “ultimate cosmopolitan”, as the New York Times dubbed him in 2002, will rub off onto Munich and put the city on the map as an art centre with an aura that extends far beyond the regional borders.

by Oliver Heilwagen

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