Born in Calabar, Nigeria, in 1963 and now dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, Okwui Enwezor has organized a number of seminal exhibitions of contemporary art. In 2001, the internationally touring exhibition “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994” presented a complex view of African modernism, and in 2002 Enwezor oversaw one of the world’s most prestigious periodic art surveys, Documenta, in Kassel, Germany. Invited by the Mori Art Museum’s MAM Art Course lecture series, he came to Tokyo to give a presentation on another recent exhibition he organized, 2008’s “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” at the International Center of Photography in New York. The Japan Times sat down with Enwezor after his lecture to discuss his career and the state of contemporary art and curatorial practice.
Documenta11, which you directed in 2002, was a watershed in terms of presenting art from around the world at international survey exhibitions in Europe and the United States. Seven years later, do you feel the exhibition has had a lasting impact on how curators approach looking at art?
In 1998, when I was invited to direct Documenta, I had just finished organizing the second Johannesburg Biennale. For me, what was striking about Johannesburg was the historical circumstance of South Africa in 1996 after the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994. South Africa was reorganizing its society, rethinking its place in the world and rethinking its cultural outlook.
When Documenta was founded in 1955, Germany was undergoing a similar transition, and the historical demand of the exhibition’s first edition was not to look inwards but to look outwards, to invite the rest of the world to Kassel. I began work on Documenta11 with the desire to be a student of this historical process. Had the exhibition achieved its initial goals? If so, what more could be done with it?
I thought that the changes since 1955 in historical conditions of artistic production had not been properly reflected in the exhibition. My view was to redistribute the accumulated cultural capital of Documenta. In order to do that, we had to bring a different curatorial lens to the kinds of art we considered, the places we visited for research, the projects we chose to support. Plus, we wanted to deterritorialize Documenta. We wanted to move the center of Documenta outside of Kassel itself, so we created roving public platforms (in cities ranging from Vienna to St. Lucia and Lagos) in order to have a conversation with the rest of the world.
Whether this has had an impact or not is a different issue, but what it made clear was that the picture of contemporary practice was more complex than had appeared in previous editions. So my approach and that of my colleagues was to be resolutely postcolonial — not in a narrow sense, but in a capacious way — to say that the apparatus of the colonial project had become unwieldy and incapable of describing the multiplicity of factors and events shaping artistic production.
You were born and raised in Nigeria, continued your education in the United States and are now among a generation of curators who move very easily between different localities. What kind of viewpoint do you represent?
There were certainly a number of new curators who emerged after 1989. It’s not for nothing that this was when the world order changed, and there was a corresponding cultural change of guard. Curators of the generation before me were not interested in Africa. They were not interested in Asia. If they were interested in Asia, they were interested in a few Japanese artists because Japan was viewed as part of the West — they were not interested in broadly international concerns.
Coming from Nigeria was both a limit and an advantage. At first, it seemed that if I wanted to be successful in my field, I had to follow finite models for understanding contemporary art. But my generation of curators were historically timely. That sense of timeliness enabled us to realize that these limits were to be breached. I wanted to construct a map of the intellectual world that I inhabited, and this world involved many different participants. In a nutshell, what I’m trying to say is that the 1990s were the moment of really undoing those limits, a moment to say that globalization — as much as we can complain about it — had produced new relations of discourse, and I think we had an intellectual responsibility to respond to it.
You recently worked with French curator Nicolas Bourriaud on this year’s Tate Triennial in London, entitled “Altermodern,” which presents an alternative vision to the intellectual frameworks of modernity and postmodernity. Could you question whether modernity is participatory? Could one choose to opt out of modernity?
I don’t know if one can opt out of modernity, because it is a complex set of historical relations. I see modernity in many ways, like the postcolonial, as a situation of deep entanglement. So the question is, how does one disentangle oneself? How does one exit historical time? Modernity is a paradoxical process that is at once the establishment of certain forms of agency and at the same time the denial of that agency. At every given level — even when we choose to detach ourselves from modernity — we are precisely engaging with modernity. In a sense, when we try to disengage from it, what we are actually doing is questioning the authority of modernity; and that’s why, when we attempt to move out of modernity, as Bourriaud does with “Altermodern,” it is not to say that one can opt out of modernity, but it is really to construct another epistemological structure from which one can understand the process of production. Bourriaud uses the term “offshore” to describe these archipelagoes of thought and production in which the altermodern artist operates. I tend to see it less as offshore but rather as “off-centered,” in the sense that we no longer have this singular point of concentration. Globalization has made the contemporary landscape prismatic. There is not one single place that provides a vantage point from which you can see the rest of the world.