The Anambra State government has said that it is with the deepest grief that it received the news of the untimely passing of the world-class curator, Okwui Enwezor, one of their own.
The inimitable Okwui Enwezor, who was fondly known as simply “Okwui”, in elite art circles all over the world, died of cancer in Munich, Germany, on March 15, 2019.
A statement by Commissioner for Information & Public Enlightenment, C. Don Adinuba, said it was one death that sent volcanic shock waves across the continents culminating in the New York Times describing Enwezor as “an influential Nigerian curator whose large-scale exhibitions displaced European and American art from its central position and forged a new approach to art for a global age.”
Enwezor, who was born in 1963 in Awkuzu, Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra State, towered on the world stage, according to the New York Times, through “ambitious, erudite, and carefully argued exhibitions staged in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.”
“The quintessential Renaissance man, Enwezor was admitted to study at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but left for the United States after a semester in 1982. He took a degree in Political Science at Jersey City University, New Jersey, United States,” said the statement.
He started out writing creatively upon graduation, performing his poetry widely. His fervent study of poetry would in time lead him on toward art criticism and conceptual art.
He settled in Munich, Germany, in 2011, where he served as the director of the esteemed Haus der Kunst, Munich, until his resignation in 2018, following his battle with cancer.
Earlier, in 1994, he collaborated with other artists in founding NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art. The magazine is now published by Duke University Press in the United States.
He undertook the epochal exhibition In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, which he curated with Octavio Zaya at the Guggenheim Museum of New York.
Enwezor swiftly rose in esteem and was appointed Artistic Director of the Second Johannesburg Biennial in 1996.
He astonished the erstwhile insular western art world in 1998 when he rose to become the first African, and as yet the only non-European Artistic Director, of the prestigious Documenta.
Enwezor is reputedly the only curator, after Italy’s legendary Harald Szeeman (1933-2005), to have directed both Documenta and the celebrated Venice Biennale.
A guru in so much demand across the globe, he upped the ante by serving as the curator in the Seville and Gwangju Biennials in 2006 and 2008, respectively. The icing as it were, was his work as the curator of the Paris Triennale in 2012.
Enwezor’s body of work in world art are a grand testament to commitment, notably such breakthrough exhibitions as: The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945 to 1994 (at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, 2001), Archive Fever: The Uses of Documents in Contemporary Art (at the International Center for Photography, New York, 2008), The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life (International Center for Photography, New York, 2013), and Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 (Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2016).
Even amid his grim battle with cancer, Enwezor was hard at work on a proposed exhibition project titled “Grief and Grievance,” that pivoted on two public speeches, to wit: Barack Obama’s eulogy in 2015 for the Charleston victims of a white supremacist attack, and Donald Trump’s Gettysburg address, 10 days after announcing his presidential race.
The University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Harvard University, USA aawarded Enwezor honourary doctorate degrees. He was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2014 and the Hessichen Kulturpreis in 2015.
Incidentally, exactly a week before his death, an exhibition titled El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale, an extensive travelling exhibition of the work of Africa’s greatest living artist and emeritus professor at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, El Anatsui, which Enwezor co-curated with Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University, opened at Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany.
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, Okwui Enwezor is indeed the globally mourned one in the hearts of us all in his home state of Anambra and all over the world.
At the young age of 55, Okwui Enwezor has joined the ranks of Anambra State’s distinguished world-class ancestors such as Professor Ben Enwonwu in Fine Arts, Professor Chinua Achebe in Letters, and Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike in History, that is, History with a capital H.