Why Venice Biennale's First African Director Is a True Virtuoso

Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor is not afraid of artwork that engages with political questions, but tries to avoid dogma. And boycotts? That depends.

Maya Lecker
Ariel Krill
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Okwui Enwezor.Credit: Giorgio Zucchiatti
Maya Lecker
Ariel Krill

“I can speak freely, but I think it’s important that I don’t speak thoughtlessly” – such is the formulation with which Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of the 2015 Venice Biennale, which opened on May 9, chooses to reply when we try to press him for his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not that the evasiveness is unusual – after all, it’s a lose-lose situation. What’s exceptional is the linguistic acrobatics: It’s a spare, incisive formulation; an unmitigated truth that foregrounds the world’s complexity over the need to take a stand; a near-perfect 9.0 on the Shimon Peres scale.

Therein lies the secret of Enwezor’s charm, though it must be noted straightaway that in his case, it might not be mere evasiveness. The prudence with which he expresses himself is not confined solely to the volatile Middle East. It runs like a thread through everything he says – as does the uncertainty about its motivation: A sincere desire to avoid crude generalizations? Or a reluctance to utter controversial statements? His fans will choose the first possibility, his detractors the second. All, however, will agree: If there’s anyone who deserves to have his photograph inserted in the dictionary under the entry “virtuoso,” it’s Okwui Enwezor.

Not only is Enwezor (it’s pronounced en-WAY-zor) the first African ever to be appointed curator of the world’s most important art exhibition, the Venice Biennale. He was also the first non-European to serve as artistic director of the no-less prestigious Documenta art show in Kassel, Germany. In fact, only one other curator besides him (Harald Szeemann) has held both positions – and Enwezor accomplished the feat without so much as an hour of art, or art history, studies to his name.

Born to an affluent Igbo family, Enwezor left his native Nigeria in 1982, when he was 18, to pursue studies in New York. By 1987, he had obtained a degree in political science from Jersey City State College. At the time, African art had a meager presence, if at all, in New York’s galleries, and Enwezor, spotting this lacuna, founded in 1993, together with two associates, a journal for contemporary African art called Nka. Two decades later, the journal continues to appear semiannually.

This was the pivotal moment in his career. By a fortuitous coincidence, from his perspective, the first issue of Nka appeared not long before New York’s Guggenheim Museum was to host an exhibition of African art,  which, having previously been mounted in London, had been fiercely criticized for failing to include the work of even one contemporary artist. In an attempt to thwart the criticism in advance, the Guggenheim hired a group of curators to come up with an accompanying exhibition of contemporary African art, and asked Enwezor to join, despite his having no museum experience whatsoever. The resulting exhibition, “In/sight” (1996), featuring 30 African photographers, drew high praise and marked the launch of Enwezor’s meteoric career.

'El mito del eterno retorno,' by Felipe Cardeña (2014).

Almost immediately, he was appointed chief curator of the Johannesburg Biennale, held in 1997. Less than a year later, he was named – in an announcement that took the art world by surprise, both because of his ethnic origins and because of his very limited experience – artistic director of Documenta 11, slated for 2002. Enwezor took the opportunity to breach the exhibition’s traditional framework. Instead of being confined only to Kassel, and for a limited period, Documenta 11 consisted of a series of events held across 18 months in a variety of venues across the globe.

Following his tenure at Kassel, Enwezor held a number of positions in art institutions throughout the world, curated exhibitions and biennale events, taught at universities, published articles and edited books. In 2011, he was named director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, a post he continues to hold, and that was supplemented, at the end of 2013, by his appointment as curator of the 56th Venice Biennale.

‘Intellectual invisibility’

To this day, Enwezor is credited with unveiling contemporary African art to today’s art world and securing its status within it. “I don’t think it really begins with the question of whether this is my claim to importance,” he says in a video conference from his office in Munich, “but rather with the state of contemporary African art at the time, over 20 years ago. It would be false for me to say that contemporary African art did not exist until people like me came into the field. Nevertheless, from the perspective of New York, and within the broader stream of contemporary art, there was very little interest in the work of contemporary African artists. 

“So in a way, my career has to do with one simple question: What makes an African contemporary? That obviously involves not only the art world, so it was also a question of thinking about what makes me contemporary, because if contemporary African art didn’t exist, then its very invisibility supposed, in a sense, my own intellectual invisibility.”

Twenty years later, there’s no doubt that the developments with which Enwezor is identified can be crowned a success. “Today,” he says, “the visibility of African artists of different generations is something that is commonplace. We are seeing an increasing number of African artists having solo exhibitions and retrospectives – something that was unheard of 10 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, very few people could even name an African artist, much less expect to see his work in permanent institutional collections or on display among the works of other artists. 

“Of course, we have to look at the different levels of visibility. With such a big, broad geographic and cultural space as Africa, it’s very hard to generalize. What obtains in, say, Senegal – where the artists are almost national heroes – might not be the same in, say, Zambia or Mozambique or Nigeria. There are also different forms of repression that take place within the context of studying and acknowledging the work of African artists. 

“I’ll give you an example: Zanele Muholi in South Africa, whose work [as a photographer] takes a very strong activist stance in relation to LGBT identities. Her work has been shown at the Venice Biennale, Documenta, in just about every major exhibition you can think about. But a few years ago, her studio and home was broken into, and the only things taken were her [computer] hard drives, containing all her work. What does that say about visibility?”

Historical burden

Enwezor has not allowed African art to become his sole claim to fame. A look back at his career to date shows that he has positioned himself as the salient representative of the unofficial movement to internationalize the art world. Thus, for example, in Documenta 11, the proportion of European- and North American-born artists whose works were exhibited fell precipitously, from the traditional 90 percent to 60 percent.

'#16 Family Album,' by Samira Alikhanzadeh (2008). Photo by Courtesy of the artist

Another recurring aspect of his work is the relations between past and present. The case of Africa, with the problematics entailed in the visibility of its art in the West at present in contrast to the atrocities inflicted on the peoples of Africa by that same West in the past, is but one of many.

Another example is the institution he currently heads in Munich. Haus der Kunst is located in a monumental building constructed by the Nazis with the aim of exhibiting the “blood and soil” German art that Hitler and his cohorts exalted rather than modern art, which they deemed “degenerate.” The building survived the war and now houses one of Europe’s leading museums of contemporary art.

“While the ideological context remains powerfully present, I would like to argue that buildings have no subjectivity,” says Enwezor, explaining his approach to the building’s past. “You cannot put them on trial. Otherwise we’d have to do a tour of the entire world and knock down many buildings. 

"The question is, what can we do with this building to move it forward? Given the historical context of its development, one can say that the architecture and the ideological context seem inseparable, or at least were inseparable at a particular point in time. 

“But do they remain inseparable for all time? Or can there be different forms of ongoing intervention that one can make into this space in order to renew the possibility of historical address, of critique, of engagement? I believe that contemporary art is one of the most important instruments one can deploy in order to think about such a space, analyze it, deal with it. 

“So what have we done since I arrived?” he continues. “In 2012, the 75th anniversary of the building, we produced an exhibition, entitled ‘Histories in Conflict,’ which addressed the question of the ideological supposition of the building. We also instated a new annual commission: ‘Der Offentlichkeit’ (‘To the Public’). Every year we commission an artist to make a work for the central hall, where Goebbels made his speeches. A long-term project we have on the side of the building, ‘Joys of Yiddish,’ by Mel Bochner, is almost a literal reminder, as well as a literal contestation, of the building’s past. Also, [Haus der Kunst is] no longer a space for German art; it’s a space for the work of artists from all over the world. And obviously, having been born in Nigeria, it’s an irony of some sorts that I am the director of this institution.”

Possible futures

Enwezor has always been engaged with the question of how one remembers the past amid a view to the future. In Documenta 11, for example, he devoted the part that took place in New Delhi to processes of truth and reconciliation, evoking the name of the state commission established in South Africa in 1995 to investigate and document the wrongs of the apartheid regime in a manner that would not encourage acts of revenge by the black majority against the white minority. In addition to a special screening of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and archival films of the Nuremberg Trials, works by Israeli film directors Amos Gitai, Eyal Sivan, Nurit Kedar and Eran Riklis were also shown.

The same motif recurs in the central exhibition at Venice this year, “All the World’s Futures,” which, as Enwezor describes in his opening statement, is a response to the numberless crises that have occurred around the world since he was appointed artistic director of the biennale. One hundred and thirty-six artists from 53 countries will participate in the exhibition, two of them with affinities to Israel: Jumana Emil Abboud, who was born in Shfaram in 1971 and lives and works in Jerusalem; and Mika Rottenberg, a New York-based, Argentinian-born former Israeli. And instead of a screening of the full nine-hour-plus version of “Shoah,” there is now a continuous reading of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”

We spoke to Enwezor before the final theme of, and the artists participating in, the central exhibition had been announced. Nevertheless, he was still willing to share his thoughts on its conceptual framework.

Enwezor: “The last few [Venice Biennale] exhibitions, in my view, were mostly concerned with the historical. It might be a necessity to look at the relationship between the historical and the contemporary this time. The important point is really to make something meaningful; to feel that you are contributing to a discussion that has some kind of durability. That durability can only be judged not in the instance in which the exhibition is received, but in the references that the exhibition might provoke somewhere down the line. 

“I certainly don’t see the exhibitions I make as entertaining,” he continues. “Rather, I think making an exhibition is a process of discovery. It’s very important to underscore the point that when you make an exhibition, you are talking to multiple audiences. First, I value the judgment of my peers. Then, you are also talking to the institution itself – it’s a silent audience, if you will. Then there is the general public that you make the exhibition for, those people who have an interest, who have some level of information, that want to be engaged. You have to take them into consideration seriously. 

Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain,' by Bruce Nauman (1983). Photo by Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“Lastly, the biennale framework provides a significantly different platform for art and artists than what a museum provides. The metabolisms of biennales are much quicker, much faster. They process information in a way that is speedier than museums, which take time to develop a project and years pass before these projects make their way into their program. 

“So we are really dealing with two different temporalities, and these temporalities are necessary to deal with the level of production that is taking place around the world. I do not necessarily think that we need to build more museums for that. The temporary structure of the biennale might be a much more fruitful place for gathering information, for seeing the development of works of art.”

An attempt to establish a biennale of art was made in Tel Aviv, too, we inform Enwezor. It succeeded twice. 

“Well, you know, the Johannesburg biennale has been suspended for 17 years,” he replies. “There are a lot of discussions about bringing it back, and I would like to see it return. We’ll have to wait and see.” 

A similarity between South Africa and Israel? – we ask, tongue in cheek. 
“What, that they both have suspended biennales?” he laughs. Exactly.

How the artist engages

The crack about Israel and South Africa being alike was not uttered by chance. One might think that Enwezor’s high standing in the art world and the reputation he has acquired, along with the fact that he has dealt quite a bit with South Africa in the course of his career, would oblige him to take a stand regarding the view that Israel’s regime in the West Bank is bordering on apartheid and that therefore sanctions should be imposed on Israel as they were on South Africa. All the more so, since one of the accomplishments he’s usually credited with is bridging the gap that ostensibly separates the aesthetic and the political. 

It’s apparent from his curatorial choices and from his writing that he does not believe that the political lies in the artist’s explicit position regarding a specific state of affairs, but in the way the artist engages with that state of affairs and stimulates the viewer to engage with it himself. In other words, the political aspect of a work of art is expressed precisely through its specific aesthetics. Thus, from Enwezor’s point of view, there is no such thing as apolitical art; there is only art that has undergone depoliticization, art stripped artificially of its inherent politics. 

Nevertheless, he persists in his refusal to articulate an explicit stand regarding Israel. “I hesitate,” he explains, “not because I want to deflect your question but because I don’t want to make generalizations about the social and political conditions within another country. I am personally opposed to any kind of discrimination or segregation, but I think the question of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is one that I am really not qualified to render judgment on. Yes, I’ve been to Israel, but only passing through on my way to Ramallah.

“Still, I am fundamentally interested in the kind of question that you are posing. What, for example, is the emancipatory capacity of art to deal with a place such as Israel that is besieged on so many levels? What is the place of the artist in such a context when there is often a call for art to be de-politicized? How does the artist respond? So, we are really caught in this bind between politicization and de-politicization. On the one hand, the political is seen to be an instrument that holds very little artistic funds, whereas, on the other hand, depoliticized art is often accused of being complicit with the existing regime. 

Wangechi Mutu , Blue eyes, 2008. Photo by Courtesy the Artist / Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects

“The question ‘Should one take sides?’ depends on what is at stake, and, again, I will not generalize. I don’t think it’s really that easy to take sides. One has to look at it at a much narrower level. So, am I for all political art? No. Am I against all depoliticized art? No. I think that’s too simplistic. It all depends on what the given is.  What I do resist in art is dogma. I’m not interested in dogma; I’m interested in the politics of engaging with one’s own commitment to make work that responds to and addresses and engages and surpasses the very framework that art is operating in.”

At this point, we feel compelled to apprise Enwezor of the fact that for Israeli artists and for the Israeli public, the relations between art and politics are of an entirely different order. On the one hand, there are calls from the outside for a cultural boycott, thus questioning the very visibility of Israeli art; while on the other hand, there are calls from within, not for depoliticization of art, but rather for its clear-cut politicization (for example, in the establishment of the Ministry of Culture’s Prize for Zionist Works of Art). Thus, the straits in which Israeli artists find themselves are in large measure external to their art.
“You are asking if I am for or against boycott?” Enzewor laughs. “And you really think I will answer that? What I can say is that we, at Haus der Kunst, are currently discussing with an Israeli museum the possibility of having one of our exhibitions travel to Israel. So that should be an answer to your question.

“I can speak freely, but I think it’s important that I not speak thoughtlessly. I think that’s an important difference, and these questions are not easily answered without really looking at the totality of my own engagement with the field. Obviously, during the years of divestment in the United States from companies that did business with the apartheid regime, I was very much in support of boycott as a way of forcing the apartheid regime to either come to the negotiating table or to really begin to dismantle itself. 

“On the other hand, there was an exhibition by Palestinian artist Ahlam Shibli at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in the summer of 2013 that was attacked by certain groups in France that argued that Shibli’s work contained anti-Israeli or anti-whatever imagery. I signed a petition against this attempt to censor, to silence and to attack the museum. Was I taking Ahlam’s side for all time against the side of an Israeli artist? No. I will also defend the vital position of an Israeli artist were he or she to experience such a call for boycott. 

“I remember two instances from Documenta: One, a number of people who admired the exhibition, congratulated me – on all but the fact that I had shown a project called ‘From/To’ by Fareed Armaly that mapped the trajectories of the displacement of Palestinians. On the other hand, I was also critiqued for showing the work of Eyal Sivan, even though Sivan’s work was not even about Israel. It was about Rwanda. So, go figure.

“When you put it in the balance, the question we have to ask ourselves is, what constitutes this boycott, around which question is the boycott constituted, and what does that mean for the free flow of ideas. If you look at my work, if you look at the publications that come out of my work, it’s not devoid of politics. But I think I deal with it in a much more implicated way than just simply appropriating politics as an instrument in the exhibitions.”