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Okwui Enwezor (1963–2019)

MUNICH, GERMANYOkwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator, poet, critic, and historian whose large-scale exhibitions led to a more global view of contemporary art, has died at the age of fifty-five years old from cancer. His tenure as artistic director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, a role he began in 2011, as well as his landmark Documenta 11 in 2002, established Enwezor as one of the most influential exhibition organizers of the century so far. The news of his death comes nine months after his departure from Haus der Kunst and was first shared by Venice Biennale, whose 2015 edition Enwezor curated.

As the first non-European curator of Documenta and the first African-born director of the Venice Biennale—and one of only two people to curate both prestigious exhibitions—Enwezor worked to shift the art industry’s rampant Eurocentrism, ushering African, Asian, and Latin American artists into predominately Western institutions. He favored a conceptual approach driven by social change and described the biennial as a “commons” and a “diasporic public sphere.”

Following his breakthrough 1996 exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York, “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to Present,” Enwezor has drawn acclaim for numerous shows, many of which are considered groundbreaking. These include “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” (2002) at MoMA PS1; “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” (2006) at the International Center of Photography; and, with cocurator Katy Siegel, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965” (2016–17) at the Haus der Kunst.

Born in Awkuzu, Nigeria, in 1963, he moved to the Bronx when he was eighteen and earned a degree in political science at New Jersey City University. In New York, Enwezor gained a lifelong interest in poetry, performing at downtown venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café before embracing art criticism and starting the Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art. In addition to his curatorial work, Enwezor authored several books on contemporary African art and held teaching positions at universities across the United States. His essays and criticism have been published in Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, Frieze, Glendora, and Art Journal.

Enwezor told Michelle Kuo in an interview for Artforum’s May 2015 issue: “We have reached a point where we cannot have one homogenized narrative, one view of the future, a singular idea of what constitutes the good life, even though we have inherited certain monolithic cultural, social, and political ways of thinking about the world. This monolithic narrative has become increasingly untenable and can no longer hold.”

March 18, 2019