Okwui Enwezor is the first non-European Director of the Documenta. As an African with a background in political science, he brings an unconventional wisdom to the biggest art job in the world.
Breaking all the rules - and having a blast
The decision to appoint Okwui Enwezor as curator of Documenta11, which opens in Kassel today, raised eyebrows among the public and art critics alike.
The tapping of 38-year-old Enwezor marked the first time the organization had ever promoted a non-European to the prestigious post. Enwezor impressed the Dokumenta commission so much with his dazzling curatorial work at the Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 that its leaders broke what was formerly seen as taboo.
Enwezor recently quipped to a reporter: "I can't really explain why instead of preparing the next Documenta, I'm not working at the U.N."
The selection of Enwezor came at a time when Western nations were taking a closer look at artists and critics in Africa. At the recent biennale exhibits in Johannesburg and Dakar, artists with immense self-confidence and talent knocked loudly on the door, telling the West that their time had come. In Enwezor's case, that African voice is often very political.
"My approach to art is based on the broadest spectrum. It's not simply a question of whether people especially like something," he says. "It's more a question of whether it is something that pulls people in, challenges and even disturbs them. The work has to take up a critical position that has a direct relationship to its thematic subject."
Born in 1963 and raised in southeastern Nigeria, Enzewor moved to the United States at the beginning of the 1980s to study literature and political science. At the time, he also became interested in contemporary art.
In a very short time, he had established himself among insiders as a tremendous expert of contemporary European, American and African art the 20th Century. He was in high demand as a guest speaker at universities and his criticism appeared in numerous art magazines.
With his political science background, an unusual one for the art world, Enzewor brings a different perspective to his work as a curator. In terms of theory, he follows the second-generation modernists, who see globalization as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Their ideology is a reaction to the first-generation modernists, whose conviction in the concept of the nation-state has failed. The second-generation modernists see no conflict in simultaneously living and acting both globally and locally. In their view, globalization doesn't mean centralization, but that there will instead be many centers that coexist with more or less equal status.
Consistent with that belief, Enwezor tends to cover themes like global communication, the transforming role of nation-states, post-colonialism and migration, and how these themes are influencing contemporary art.