The Interview – Okwui Enwezor: Cruelty of the ordinary

2014-02-02 14:00

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The Rise and Fall of Apartheid is an epic photo exhibition that is due to open in Joburg. It was co-curated by Okwui Enwezor, who first came to town 17 years ago to create the second Johannesburg Biennale. Since then, he has become terribly important in the art world – a world as charming as it is vicious. Charl Blignaut speaks to him

“Of course he’s important, he’s a darling of the art world. He’s curating Venice, for God’s sake,” an international buyer says to me in the lobby of a Joburg hotel. “But he’s also lucky. He was born at the right time.”

Later he says: “Frankly, I find his shows a bit shabby.”

Perhaps it’s true. I’ve heard it before. Okwui Enwezor works chaotically and temperamentally when putting together an exhibition, sometimes cutting corners for the sake of the bigger picture.

Or perhaps this is just the institutional muttering of the pale male establishment, irritated that the Nigerian-born curator is scruffing up their territory, letting in the smells of the developing world.

“No one is born with a straight arrow in his quiver,” said Enwezor in a recent interview. “It’s a combination of relentless work and good fortune.”

He did not follow the usual academic route to becoming the artistic director of the greatest art shows on earth – yet he is the only man, other than Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, who has been put in charge of both of the world’s “most influential” exhibitions: Documenta (in 2002) and the Venice Biennale (in 2015). Needless to say, he is the first curator born in Africa to do either.

“He has no background in art history and has never held a full-time museum job. His only degree is a BA in political science?...?While living in Brooklyn, he made a name for himself as a poet, and supported himself as a waiter and security guard,” writes Adam Shatz in a New York Times profile of Enwezor.

“It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, after he started up a hip African arts magazine [Nka], that museums began asking him to curate shows.”

Enwezor certainly has his critics, but even they tend to agree that he has opened up the art world to include a broader range of voices, especially from Africa.

“Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbour any sign of a paralysing 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,” said Enwezor of arriving in America in 1982.

In his frank profile, Shatz suggests that Enwezor’s greatest talent is “for the curatorial theatre of promotion. He talks up each of his shows as if it were epoch-making.”

On the line from Munich, though, the man with the cosmopolitan accent (part London, part Lagos, part New York) isn’t doing that. He’s discussing the work on The Rise and Fall of Apartheid – co-curated with local art historian Rory Bester – in a calm, clipped voice.

We haven’t spoken since his first trip to Joburg 17 years ago.

I suspect he’s sneaking a quiet breakfast as he chats, but can’t say for sure. He’s terribly discreet.

The widely published author and perennially controversial curator is in Munich because he is the director of the Haus der Kunst there. His wife, a Libyan-Polish art therapist, and their daughter live in New York, where he is adjunct curator of the International Center of Photography and a Fellow at the Whitney Museum.

Enwezor laughs easily, but is always in control of the conversation.

He’s known to be a collector of South African art, but neatly puts the question aside “until later” when I ask who he buys. Later never happens.

Some of the local artists he has championed are David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng, William Kentridge and Zwelethu Mthethwa. There’s no doubt he has contributed to their growing star status. They’re all present on The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, which includes video and art among the densely layered rooms of photos.

He is full of critical praise for their work, especially Goldblatt’s documenting of daily life during apartheid.

“One cannot think apartheid without predicting its very ordinariness, and it is the very ordinary that is extraordinary?…?the way in which bureaucratic mechanisms enabled people to internalise themselves,” says the curator over the phone.

He is speaking about the cruelty of the daily experience under apartheid – pass law checks, whites-only signs, poverty. These are interspersed with images of resistance and defiance, white unconsciousness and Drum-era icons.

He tells me how he asked Mthethwa to go through his old negatives, discovering the strangely abstract photos on the exhibition taken at Crossroads in 1985.

There is no mention of Mthethwa’s troubles. The photographer and painter has been charged with beating to death a 23-year-old prostitute in April last year in Cape Town and is out on bail, awaiting trial.

The art world is terribly quiet about it. The art world is very particular about how it responds to scandal. Enwezor is too.

He has, of course, been accused by critics of being too art-worldy. Of not being African enough, of holding a Western gaze to African art, of favouring African artists living in the diaspora and not on the continent. Some say he has done a disservice to the struggle for recognition of authentic African art.

Over the line, he responds by saying: “In defence of my record, I would say I don’t shy away from controversy, but I do not court it in any way, shape or form?…?When we started this conversation, you joked that I was cocky when we first met. I take it to mean not arrogance but confidence. I’ve taken the same approach to African art and I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve done in this field.”

In 2011, Enwezor was ranked 52nd in the Art Review list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world.

Curating Documenta 11 really shot him to prominence. It’s held every five or so years in the German town of Kassel. Only the most important artists make it onto the exhibition.

Enwezor’s Documenta was, according to Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, “one of the few exhibitions that have been called game-changers in the history of curating.

And this, I believe, had to do with the introduction of the multiple platforms scattered across the globe, as the constitutive sites of an event that until then only took place in Kassel.”

But if Enwezor has been a trumpeter in the rise of Africa in world art, the 2013 Art Review list is a pin to prick the bubble. He’s not on it. Asia is rising, but Africa is a glimmer. Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui is in at 98th and that’s that.

Artists really don’t feature – though Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramovich come in at ninth and 11th. In the capitalist frenzy of art collecting, the list is dominated by funders, gallery directors and gallerists. The only curator is Massimiliano Gioni, who did Venice last year.

Enwezor is curating the planet’s biggest show next, so he’ll be back on the list for sure.

“[He] has investigated, in particular, the complex phenomenon of globalisation in relation to local roots,” said the committee’s citation.

The West knows its influence is fading and Enwezor will make them relevant, say the cynics.

I ask him of his Venice plans, knowing he’ll never give them away.

“I was 35 when I was appointed director of Documenta, but I’m 50 now, so obviously there has to be a shift in perspective when it comes to Venice,” he says.

“Venice is such an interesting space in itself,” I say. “It emulates some of the trade-route themes of your Joburg Biennale.”

“You are absolutely correct,” he says. “Venice is a kind of crossroad, and it’s also an island, it’s both a space of circulation, but it’s also a kind of terminus, if you will.”

Enwezor was born into a wealthy Igbo family in Calabar. During the Biafran War, beginning in 1967, his family moved 45 times. The influences are obvious.

“It’s actually quite good that we started this conversation when we first met at the Joburg Biennale,” he says, “because the seeds of The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, in many ways, were sown then.”

I remember walking into that biennale – in Newtown – and the smell of earth, the beer bottles, the sounds and neon lights, a sensory overload of art.

I suspect Rise and Fall will be similar – dense, noisy, scruffy and elusive. Like history.

It’s possible that the thing that most frustrates the critics is that Enwezor delivers experiences, not just theories.

»?The Rise and Fall of Apartheid opens at Museum Africa in Joburg on February 13 and runs until June 29

»?If you cannot get to the exhibition, stay with City Press and be a virtual visitor to the show. As the media partner of this historic exhibition, City Press will offer readers and audiences online slide shows, unique collector’s posters and ongoing coverage of this remarkable slice of our past in pictures as part of our 20 Years of Democracy coverage, starting on February 9

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