Sunday, 14 April 2019

Okwui Enwezor... 'All The World's Futures' Gone

Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director of Venice Art Biennale (left) and Paolo Baratta, President of the event.

When the 58th Venice Art Biennale themed May You Live In Interesting Times holds from  May 11 to November 24 2019- 2019, in Italy, the shadow of Okwui Enwezor, will cast over the presence of African contingent to the  event. Enwezor, who was the global event's first artistic director of African descent for the 56th edition in 2015, died on March 15 this year at the age of 55.

In 2015, the Venice Art Biennale, themed All the World's Futures, had the opportunity of presenting what observers noted as highest number of African artists participants till date. Out of total of 139 artists about 35 blacks came from Africa, the U.S and Europe with nearly half of them based at home. For the 2019 edition, only six artists of African descents have been listed: Nigerians, Akunyili Crosby and Nkanga Otobong; Ethiopian Mehretu Juli; Kenyan Armitage Michael; and South Africans Muholi Zanele and Wa Lehulere Kemang. Participating African national pavilions include debutants Ghana, Algeria and Madagascar. Others are Egypt, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

A former director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, Enwezor, at every opportunity of his career in the west had made contemporary statements of the 21st century contents. After he curated Seville and Kwangju Biennials in 2006 and 2008 respectively as well as the Paris Triennale in 2012, the ultimate, Venice Arts Biennale was just a stretch of hand away. And when Enwezor got it, he confirmed that his pre-Venice Biennale works such as the Documenta 11 and others were not fluke. For example, his artistic weaving and presentation  of the diverse contents at the 56th Venice Art Biennale would remain memorable in the history of the event. Enwezor, among other paradigm shift, stringed American painter Kerry James Marshall's work with video installation of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu; and Iraqi video artist, Hiwa K., British film-maker John Akomfrah and the Indian Raqs Media Collective in cohesive presentation of each were some of the diversity values that Enwezor brought to the event.

However, sections of the western press were unimpressed with Enwezor's adventure of converging diversity in All the World's Futures. For example, Artsy, an influential art newspaper concluded in its review of  the event: "Whether or not you leave Venice a Marxist, the havoc is impossible to ignore." For another medium, Frieze.com, creativity was viewed through racism prism. "Colour is an important signification device, not only for the artist but for Enwezor, too. The dominant colour palette of the curator’s imperial disquisition on sovereignty is black," Sean O'Toole wrote in a review for Frieze.com.

Having Enwezor as Artistic Director of the 56th edition, which had large number artists of African descents must have inspired the presence of some artists in the 57th edition in 2017. Interestingly, Nigeria made its debut in 2017. Jelili Atiku was among artists who showed at the event.
Atiku, perhaps had no opportunity of working with Enwezor directly at that level. But, Atiku, one of Africa's top performance artists, in a tribute described the late curator as "Igi-nla" (Big tree in the forest). "I can only describe or liken the essence of Enwezor to our world to the potency of Igi nla, the enigmatic tree. Okwui will forever remain as Igi nla in the heart of the art of the world; and also as a giant visionary curator and art-critic that broadened, redefined, reshaped new approaches to the art of the world, especially the contemporary art from Africa. He was a pride of the world!"

Prof Chika Okeke-Agulu of
of African Art & African Diaspora Art,
Princeton University, U.S. was among closest professionals to Enwezor.
"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," stated Okeke-Agulu, of Princeton's
Department of Art & Archaeology / Department of African American Studies. "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."

 Listed among exhibitions he curated are: 'The Short Century' (2001), 'Archive Fever' (2008), 'The Rise and Fall of Apartheid' (2013), and 'Postwar' (2016).
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