BY Sean O'Toole in Profiles | 18 MAR 19
Featured in
Issue 203

Okwui Enwezor: A Literary Appreciation

A tribute to the late curator’s support of artists in South Africa and how his writing on them ‘revealed something of his acute sense for history’

BY Sean O'Toole in Profiles | 18 MAR 19

It was as a curator that I met Okwui Enwezor, vicariously, through his startlingly plural selection of artists and works for the second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, but it was as a writer of uncommon flair and piercing insight that he routinely engaged me. This way of knowing Enwezor was, I now realise, unavoidable. But for his two blockbuster shows in Johannesburg – that compass-setting biennale at the beginning of his luminous curatorial career and, some two decades later, a compulsory presentation of ‘Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ (2014) in the country that inspired the show – Enwezor was a northern godhead. His stomping grounds were the gilded, often snowbound imperial centres of the modern art world. And yet, for all his northern remoteness, Enwezor remained engaged by the art emerging from this strange, unhappy and broken country at the southern foot of Africa. An early champion of Kendell Geers, David Goldblatt, William Kentridge, Santu Mofokeng and Tracey Rose, ‘Snap Judgments’ (2006), his sprawling showcase of new photographic practices from the African continent included work by Mikhail Subotzky, Guy Tillim and Nontsikelelo Veleko. His writings about these artists, as much as his curatorial gestures involving them, revealed something of his acute sense for history: how it can be obliquely contained and creatively narrated through an artwork. Yes, his voice was stentorian, and yes his criticisms were occasionally bellicose. But recently rereading some of his early criticism, which took aim at cosy liberal shibboleths – most notably in Johannesburg, London and New York – I was reminded how urgent and unapologetic his voice was, but also lapidary and spacious. 

Okwui Enwezor, 2014. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Stefania D’Alessandro

These latter virtues waned somewhat with the global attention his career achieved: Enwezor the poet-critic entranced by the writings of Arthur Nortje was superseded in his later career by Enwezor the philosopher-critic interested in Giorgio Agamben. This shift was not a betrayal: Enwezor’s attraction to Agamben and his theory of bare life was primed by his appreciation for Nortje, a South African poet whose lonely death in exile as a political refugee animated a key condition of our age. In the only conversation we ever had, Enwezor gently berated me for not seeing enough of his shows. Yes, it’s true. But, shows open and close. My library of books and catalogues with Enwezor’s name imprinted on or in them is always gratifyingly near. And yes, the books are frequently open.

This article appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Okwui Enwezor 1963-2019’

Main image: Okwui Enwezor, 2015. Courtesy: Getty Images, Contour; photograph: Pascal Perich

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.