ART NEWS / Okwui Enwezor is dead at 55. 

Okwui Enwezor is dead at 55. He had been battling cancer for years

It is with a deep sadness that we heard the death of Okwui Enwezor at 55. He had been battling cancer for years. Among the first to share news of his passing was the Venice Biennale, whose 56th edition he curated in 2015.

Okwui Enwezor was a Nigerian curator, art critic, writer, poet, and educator specialized in art history. In 2014, he was ranked 24 in the ArtReview list of the 100 most powerful people of the art world. He was also known for his incisive, free-thinking, great eloquence and his more inclusive and less Eurocentric, curatorial focus on a more international view of contemporary art and art history.

Enwezor was the first African-born curator to organize the Venice Biennale, a show that began in 1895, and the first non-European to oversee Documenta, the every-five-years show in Kassel, Germany, which he staged in 2002. That latter show, Documenta XI, defined his curatorial sensibilities: venturesome, unabashedly intellectual, and intent on rethinking how institutions operate.

In the run-up to the opening of Documenta in June of 2002, Enwezor staged what he termed platforms—conferences, seminars, and other projects—in Berlin, Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, Nigeria, and for the main exhibition showcased artists from beyond Europe and the United States, areas that had historically dominated the show.

“When I started, I always had what I thought was a change agenda,” Enwezor told Melissa Chiu in an interview at the Asia Society in New York in 2014.

“The art world was very Eurocentric and very Western-centric, and it needed strong curators to change it,” Els van der Plas, the general director of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “Enwezor positioned several projects in a very strong way, which gave a different view of the world and different views on the history of post-colonialism, of what Africa contributed to the world’s development, and of how different countries in Africa are positioned in the world debate.”

Venice and Documenta were but two in a long string of prestigious, closely watched shows he presented—a list that also includes the 1996 Johannesburg Biennale and the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea.

From 2011, he was director of the Munich Haus der Kunst for 7 years. In June 2018, he signed a operation agreement there, three years before the end of his original term. Last August, in the  Conversations e-flux, Enwezor talked about his departure from the Munich Haus der Kunst by saying “(…) But even if I had been healthier, I would probably have missed what the perspective in Munich was. Because, yes, I got the impression that I was no longer wanted. You know, as the director of such an institution, you need not only financial but also moral support….”


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