Okwui Enwezor, the distinguished curator, writer, teacher, and former director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, died in Munich on March 15. Born in Calabar, Nigeria in 1963, Enwezor lived in Munich and New York.
One of the most charismatic figures in the panorama of contemporary global art, Enwezor ascended to the peak of curatorial practice with firm conviction and phenomenal drive, rewriting the ground rules and insisting on an inclusive global perspective for postwar visual arts. In 1994, in collaboration with Salah Hassan, Olu Oguibe, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, he founded NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, now published by Duke University Press. Following the groundbreaking exhibition “In/Sight” on African photography, co-curated with Octavio Zaya at the Guggenheim Museum of New York, he was appointed Artistic Director of the Second Johannesburg Biennial in 1996.
In 1998, Enwezor surprised the western art world by being appointed Artistic Director of the prestigious Documenta 11 – until then an exclusively European domain – and he is credited with being the only curator after Harald Szeeman to have directed both Documenta and the Venice Biennale. In addition to Venice and Johannesburg, he also curated the Seville and Kwangju Biennials (2006 and 2008 respectively) and the Paris Triennale in 2012.
A poet with a background in political science, Enwezor’s curatorial approach combined both practices in unique, unprecedented and newly imaginative ways. His ambitious exhibitions, which included “The Short Century” (2001), “Archive Fever” (2008), “The Rise and Fall of Apartheid” (2013), and “Postwar” (2016) have become cornerstones in the most recent history of art. While still struggling with the life-threatening disease that would eventually claim his life, Enwezor had embarked on a challenging exhibition project titled “Grief and Grievance,” pivoting on two public speeches: Barack Obama’s eulogy in 2015 for the Charleston victims of a white supremacist attack, and Donald Trump’s Gettysburg address, ten days after announcing his presidential race.
For Enwezor, art functioned as a tool to interpret, confront, and understand the social and political present and its historical context, but without abandoning the power of its aesthetic value. In less than three decades of curatorial practice he established a permanent and game-changing legacy – countless exhibitions, conferences, scholarly books and artist monographs, and new cultural initiatives, coupled with impactful contributions to juries, advisory bodies, and curatorial teams at arts institutions around the world – the lasting effects of which will be felt by artists and curators for many generations to come.
In addition to honorary doctorates at the University of Cape Town and Harvard University, Enwezor was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2014 and the Hessichen Kulturpreis in 2015, among many other prizes and awards.
Exactly one week before his death, the aptly titled “Triumphant Scale” – an extensive traveling exhibition of the great African artist El Anatsui, which Enwezor co-curated with Okeke-Agulu – opened at Haus der Kunst in Munich.
Enwezor is survived by his daughter Uchenna Enwezor, his mother Bernadette Enwezor, his sisters Rita Ogor Enwezor-Udorji, Maureen Enwezor, Francesca Enwezor-Onyia and Nkiru Enwezor-Onyanta, and his life partner Louise Neri.