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OKWUI ENWEZOR, THE GLOBAL ART ICON BURIED AMID TEARS IN HIS VILLAGE.

LATE OKWUI ENWEZOR Image credit: e-flux.com, DPA

In a solemn ceremony at Igbu village of Awkuzu in Oyi Local Government Area of Anambra state, Nigeria, friends and family gathered to commit the body of cerebral art curator, Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor to mother earth on the bright afternoon of May 25, 2019.

by AGWU ENEKWACHI

Considering his global fame, and a culture which places much emphasis on entombing great achievers like him in elaborate and carnival-like ceremonies, the gathering of friends and family at the Enwezors’ home to bid the curator farewell to eternity was a modest and solemn one. Those present were some members of Okwui Enwezor’s family and a motley crowd comprising a few of his international colleagues and friends with whom he has worked on many curatorial and writing projects. They include Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University, who worked with him in Nka Journal of Contemporary Art and many other publications, Professor El Anatsui-the world-renowned, Nigerian-based sculptor, whose exhibition Enwezor was co-curating with Okeke-Agulu at Haus De Kunst, Munich-Germany, before his death. Also present were Sir David Adjaye-the world-renowned architect with whom he worked on some of his curatorial projects including the architectural designs for the 56th Venice Art Biennale; Abdellah Karroum, a Moroccan international art curator and researcher and Salah M. Hassan, a Sudanese professor of African and African Diaspora Art History and Visual Studies at Cornell University.

The ambulance bearing Okwui Enwezor’s body arrives his family compound.
Image credit Emmanuel Oyerinde

Some of the tributes given during the funeral rites referred to Enwezor as Ojadili-a character from a popular Igbo folktale. Ojadili was a man whose dexterity in wrestling facilitated his life’s mission to eradicate the embarrassment of his people in long-drawn contests. In the process, he earned honour for his people in far-off lands and even went further to take his art to the land of the spirits where he cheated death after wrestling with the most dangerous of the spirits. Ojadili returned home to a rousing welcome.

The body of Enwezor lying in State. Photo credit: Emmanuel Oyerinde

Okwui Enwezor’s work in the world of art was mainly for the edification of African art and artists. He did this by working passionately for the increased visibility of African art and artists in events and spaces in the west. This led to an increase in its representation, from a hitherto relatively poor showing. At the risk of sounding judgemental, I had expected a larger presence from the Nigerian art community at his funeral as a mark of respect and acknowledgement of his work, although I must say that this in no way reduces the impact of his work. Enwezor greatly accomplished his mission through his many curatorial and writing projects. Working from the heights of some of the most powerful Western art institutions, he helped in creating opportunities for more artists from Africa, Oceania and Asia to participate in exhibitions like Documenta and Venice Biennale-mega exhibitions that had little or no non-western presence in the past. Thus, his vision of wider inclusiveness in global art contributed immensely in broadening the cultural scope of these important art events. He helped to actualize globalization in the art world in the way it should be.

A Village Masquerade group performing at Okwui Enwezor’s funeral

In the story of Ojadili, little is said about what happened in his absence regarding his relationship with the friends, family and community he left behind. Distance could have serious effects on such relationships if not well handled. Clearly, Enwezor’s vision of the world and the magnitude of work required to accomplish this mission must have distanced him from what should have comprised an important part of the art world he envisioned-his locality. Enwezor once stated that “my plan was to go back to Nigeria to contribute something to the reconstruction of my country. Because of Globalization, the need has become less. Nowadays it doesn’t matter where you live.” This was Enwezor’s philosophy as he saw the world as a field where he was free to boldly express himself. No wonder he was able to achieve ambitions that many may have thought impossible due to the world’s power differentials between the global south and north. But the truth about globalization is that some places are closer to the centres of cultural, economic and political powers that drive the world system(s), while others struggle to keep up with the fast pace of the global system(s). In Nigeria, people speak about the interplay of the local and global realities and about the strategies to connect in manners that can be mutually beneficial. So, each time great scholars and professionals living in the diaspora return home to give tokens from their wealth of international experience to causes at home, it is considered a good gesture because it brings the gains of globalization or internationalism home. It also helps to keep such people in our memory in a manner that they are not forgotten. This way, we benefit from the brain-drain a syndrome that continually takes away some of the most gifted people out of Africa to centres of Western civilization.

Visitors Condole with Madam Enwezor (Okwui Enwezor’s mother)
Photo credit: Anthony Nsofor

The idea of globalization is not totally ideal; for even among nations driving the idea, there is also local politics of self-interest and preservation. Nationalism and revivalism are sparking insular claims over contested territories in art, economy and politics. Some have argued that the circumstances that caused Enwezor to resign from his appointment in Haus Der Kunst were related to local politics. Perhaps little gestures back home could have been more helpful in bringing the great work Okwui Enwezor did in the global art sphere to be even more appreciated and his name written more boldly in the history of arts in Nigeria. Aku ruo uno– repatriation of ‘wealth’ is the principle. Repatriation of self to inspire the people at home is the most basic form of Aku ruo Uno. Nonetheless, the great work Okwui accomplished will forever preserve his name in the annals of Art History. 

Dr Chijioke Onuora, Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and Prof. Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University, a renowned Artist and Scholar, at the entrance of the Enwezor’s family compound. Photo credit: Anthony Nsofor

While he was alive, Okwui Enwezor’s influence in the world of art loomed large in the global art circles due to his uncommon vision as an art curator, administrator and a writer of several vital texts in the arts. His fame stemmed from the many ground-breaking curatorial projects he initiated or was called upon to help realize. As he once said, “I have the antenna of an insect, advanced antenna that I point worldwide.” Enwezor’s vision was global and he greatly achieved what he set out to achieve. Leaving Nigeria at the age of 22, after his secondary education at government secondary school, Afikpo and after spending a semester at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he travelled to the United States of America in the early 1980s. After graduating from the New Jersey City University, with a BA degree in Political Science, he started gravitating towards the arts, first as a poet. When his interest finally perched on the visual arts, he grew rapidly due to his intellectual fecundity. He wrote critical essays, in many magazines and quickly founded the NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art, which published essays on key discourses about African Art. Some of Okwui Enwezor’s achievements include his appointment as the artistic director of Venice Biennale-the first African to occupy that position. He was the first African to be appointed the artistic director of Documenta-considered the most influential artistic forum in the world. He was also appointed as the director of Germany’s Haus Der Kunst, a position he resigned from, due to health challenges.

Friends of Enwezor: from L-R, Prof. El Anatsui, Prof. Salah Hassan, Sir David Adjaye, Abdellah Karroum and others. Photo Credit Anthony Nsofor
Okwui Enwezor’s sisters and family members

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2 Comments

  1. Okwui Rests On

    Today it seems to me that heaven received a new friend. Okwui Enwezor was buried today at his hometown of Awkuzu in Anambra State. His friends both from around the world and local came together to pay their last respect. I instantly overcame my fear of what will be my reaction watching him lay still in a casket. The beautiful funeral celebrated with songs and tributes and the casket adorned with glorious flowers washed away tears from the eyes of the mourners. Those of us that loved him without reservation have come to accept that only heaven knows why it will take him away from us at this time. We bid you rest on Okwui for you are a beautiful soul.

    1. Okwui was a Curator and an intellectual, We love him and the work he did for humanity. May his soul rest in peace.

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