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Focus on Okwui Enwezor
Curator, based in Munich and New YorK
Born in Nigeria in 1963, Okwui Enwezor was a poet and critic before becoming a curator. He was the first non-European art director of documenta, the five-yearly exhibition in Kassel, Germany, which he curated in 2002. In 2015, he became the first African to curate the Venice Biennale with his exhibition All the “World’s Futures”. He has been director of Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, since 2011.
Enwezor moved to the US in 1982 to study political science at Jersey City State College near New York. He founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1994, a biannual publication named after the Igbo word for art. The first issue drew the attention of Spanish curator Octavio Zaya, who invited Enwezor to join his curatorial team working on the exhibition “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” at the Guggenheim in New York in 1996. Enwezor was then appointed curator of the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1996 and six years later he was invited to be the director of documenta 11. Enwezor earned a reputation for proposing a different view of the world, the history of post-colonialism and what Africa contributed to the world’s development. In 2011 he was made director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich for a five-year post which has been renewed until 2021. He has been credited with increasing the number of the museum’s exhibitions per year to 12 and introducing a broader discourse.
Enwezor sought to make “All the World’s Futures“ for the 56 th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale deeply reflective and political. He anchored his show in one work of literature: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. A team of performers staged daily readings, directed by British artist/ filmmaker Isaac Julien, from the text in a performance space designed by British architect David Adjaye. Enwezor brought in numerous artists born or working in parts of the world often underrepresented in such exhibitions, including African artists from Cameroon, Ghana, Congo and Nigeria and Middle Eastern artists from Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. Many of the artworks focused on labour conditions, such as art as an investigation of labour, the changing nature of labour or how conditions of labour are expressive of global inequality.
In 2015, Enwezor was also a consulting curator on the exhibition “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” at Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. Featuring the work of more than 120 artists and designers, it showcased how design accompanies and fuels the continent’s economic and political changes. The wide diversity of work varied from furniture by Malian designer Cheick Diallo, eyewear sculptures by Kenyan artist Cyrus Kabiru, animation films by South Africanborn, Berlin-based artist Robin Rhode, and photography by Mário Macilau from Mozambique and J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere from Nigeria. Also on view were architectural projects by Francis Kéré, David Adjaye and Kunlé Adeyemi and cardboard city models by Bodys Isek Kingelez.
Independant curator, writer and critic
Born in Lausanne in 1962 and based in Paris, Simon Njami has been a pioneering player in the art world since his twenties. After conceiving the Ethnicolour Festival in Paris in 1987, he became one of the first curators to present contemporary works by African artists on the international scene. He was artistic director of the Rencontres de Bamako photography biennale in Mali from 2001-2007. Then he curated “Africa Remix“, which was presented at Museum Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf, the Hayward Gallery in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Johannesburg Art Gallery between 2004-2007.
In 2015, Njami was invited to curate the exhibition “Après Eden, la collection Artur Walther” at La Maison Rouge in Paris. Njami selected more than 800 works by around 50 artists from the photography collection of German collector Artur Walther, who lives in New York. Walther has around 4,000 works in his collection and Njami picked out a fifth of them for his exhibition about paradise lost.
“In looking at the Walther collection, I had the feeling of finding myself in front of a pagan version of the story of Adam and Eve chased out of paradise and projected into a space to the east of Eden”, he told Le Monde. Njami themed his exhibition around eight fictions: the garden, the city, identity, the novel, the body, the mask, others and the voyeur.
Hung on the walls were South Africa’s arid landscapes by David Goldblatt, images of Angola by Jo Ractliffe and child soldiers by Guy Tillim. Portraiture ranged from young revellers by Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, South African transsexuals by Sabelo Mlangeni, homosexual by Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode and staged self-portraits by Samuel Fosso. Also on view were works by Sammy Baloji from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa’s Pieter Hugo, along with western photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff, August Sander and Richard Avedon, Japan’s Hiroh Kikai and China’s Yang Fudong.
Njami also explored a fictional idea for his exhibition, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory” revisited by Contemporary African Artists. First shown at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt in 2014, it traveled to Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC the following year. The multi-media show proposed a contemporary interpretation of the themes of Dante Alighieri’s 14 th century epic poem, “The Divine Comedy”, through works of 40 artists from 18 African nations and the African diaspora. On display were sculptures by British artist Yinka Shonibare, South Africa’s Nicholas Hlobo and Egyptian-born Ghada Amer. Plus collage by Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, videos by France’s Zineb Sedira, drawings by Ethiopian-born Julie Mehretu and photography by Edson Chagas, who won the Golden Lion for the Best National Participation for Angola at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Upcoming names included Wim Botha (South Africa), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny (Ivory Coast), Ato Malinda (Kenya) and Dimitri Fagbohoun (Benin).