Interview with Okwui Enwezor, Director of the 56th Venice Biennale
On Wednesday, December 4, the Press Office of the Venice Biennale announced the appointment of the Nigerian-born curator and scholar Okwui Enwezor as the director of the 56th Venice Biennale scheduled for 2015. In this interview, Enwezor discusses his career and the significance of his latest curatorial project.
Chika Okeke-Agulu: At the opening of Documenta11 in 2002, I remember saying to you that the next big challenge would be Venice. I said it as a kind of joke, but not because I did not think you could do it. Rather I was aware that only one other person--the legendary Harald Szeemann--had curated both Documenta and Venice. In any case, since Documenta you have organized Gwangju and Seville Biennales, as well as La Triennale, Paris, and now, Venice. I cannot imagine what it feels to join Szeemann in this curatorial pantheon?
Okwui Enwezor: Thanks Chika. That's extremely kind of you to make a comparison with me and Szeeman. I know this question will inevitably come up, and I want to be as clear as possible, I belong to no pantheon. There really isn't a comparison; Szeeman is entirely in a league by himself. In the abundance of his ideas, the almost carnal fervor for artists, artworks, and objects of all kinds, along with his bold, original curatorial experiments, he paved the path to the thinking that curatorial practice need not be too studied, formalist or dogmatic.
The fact that we are the only two curators to have helmed both Documenta and Venice Biennale is a historical happenstance; but one whose significance is still settling in. It is of course, a great honor to be entrusted with the task of organizing an exhibition of this magnitude and international acclaim. Nevertheless, it is not lost on me that there is some kind of meaning in the symbolism to which you drew attention. Exactly 15 years ago, I got handed the reins of organizing Documenta. I was 35 at the time, I had limited track record, no major institution, patron, mentor, behind me, yet somehow that amazing jury that selected me saw beyond those deficits and focused, I hope, on the force of my ideas, and perhaps even a little wager on the symbolism of my being the first non-European, etc. My sense of it was that the jury wanted a choice that could be disruptive of the old paradigm but still not abandon the almost mythic ideal of this Mount Olympus of exhibitions.
I came to Documenta as I said with little track record, but with an abundance of confidence. Now at fifty, I come to Venice with a different set of lenses and experience. As you mentioned I have now organized quite a number of biennials. It's time to get to work.
C. O.: Documenta11 was one of the few exhibitions that have been called game changers in the history of curating. And this, I believe had to do with your introduction of the multiple platforms scattered across the globe, as the constitutive sites of an event that until then only took place in Kassel. What are your preliminary thoughts about how you might approach Venice, given its history and structure?
O. E.: It's too early to say what shape the 56th Venice Biennale will take. Of course, I have some preliminary ideas, but those will be worked out in due course. The one virtue of Documenta is the time allowed to organize it, which made possible the platforms. But you must remember that the platform idea, which was fundamentally about the deterritorialization of Documenta, was not initially endorsed by certain landlocked critics, but once it took off its implications about going beyond business as usual became abundantly clear. I drew enormously from the Igbo saying: "Ada akwu ofuebe ekili nmanwu." The mobility of the platforms across major cities and some not so major ones was premised on this principle. To see the artworld properly as it should be, to engage in meaningful debate the curator must risk the sense of inquisitive wanderlust. However, Venice is an Island, but also a legendary maritime trading city that historically looked out to the rest of the world. The limited time permitted to organize the biennale produces a certain sense of temporal density. I am certainly thinking about how to surmount this conundrum.
C. O.: Looking at the trajectory of your career, from the early 1990s when, with a few friends and colleagues working in the margins of the contemporary art world, you founded Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, to becoming a leading academic, administrator and curator in the field of contemporary art, does it sometimes feel like an improbable story?
O. E.: All stories are improbable. Nothing is preordained. No one is born with a straight arrow in his quiver. It's a combination of relentless work and good fortune. Without this improbability there is no risk, no adventure, no discovery. I am an autodidact which was the basis of my ceaseless and restless appetite for ideas. I learned enormously about art, not in an art history seminar (I don't even recall actually taking one) but by seeing enormous number of exhibitions, being in the presence of art and artists every week, everywhere. I still do, and I maintain the exercise of seeing, reading, thinking, and writing.
I arrived in New York in late summer of 1982, at a pivotal point in the development of contemporary art, fashion, performance, music, etc. in the city. I was a beneficiary of the perfect storm of creative upheaval: art, postmodern and postcolonial theory, identity politics: race, sexuality, gender, queer and feminist activism, and the AIDS pandemic further refreshed my perspective on difference and politicized my response to injustice. This was the context that opened me up to complexity and taught me to be courageous and fearless.
Also, Coming from Nigeria I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex. What was apparent was that most Americans I knew and met were actually not worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society. And when this became clear I saw no reason why I could not have an opinion or a point of view. I was not about to be respectful of ignorance of Africa or prejudice against African culture. This gave me some chutzpah.
I started learning about what was going on in downtown New York across every cultural and literary sphere through publications like Village Voice, Detail, Seven Days. I attended openings, went to readings, saw an enormous number of exhibitions, in every imaginable context, from apartments to Soho galleries, to alternative spaces to museums, nightclubs such as Danceteria, Area, Pyramid Club, Peppermint Lounge, Palladium, Save the Robots, The World, Roxy, Madam Rosa's, and later Nell's, Mars, you just name it. I was educated as it were in situ. I can actually say that I was there.
At some point this intense experience as a young Nigerian who was deeply interested in art and all types of the creative process ceases to be a fluke. I don't believe in standing on the margins. You should also know that what partly made Nka viable was that I did actually have a deep knowledge of international contemporary art. I was not pretending. When I started thinking of setting up Nka in 1991 when I was in my twenties, I was intellectually ready and had a certain theoretical grounding and immersion in art, visual culture, etc. I was already collecting a bit of photography and some art. My first major acquisition was the portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat by James Van der Zee from Howard Greenberg Gallery on Wooster Street. I would go to the Comme des Garçon boutique downstairs to shop and up to the Greenberg Gallery to browse vintage prints by Cartier Bresson, Kertescz, Weston, Moholy Nagy, Baron de Meyer. So with Nka It wasn't as if I did not know what I was talking about. The only reason it also worked was because I had the language and it was fresh and people were open to giving it audience. That it led to where I am standing today is both surprising and thrilling. But we are nearly thirty years into this story. The novelty of endless looking back is wearing off. Obama's campaign slogan in the last election against the hapless Mitt Romney had it exactly right: Forward.
C. O.: Are you going to retire from curating biennales after Venice?
O. E.: I am not the retiring type.