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Enwezor, Okwui

    Image Credit: ArtNet

    Full Name: Enwezor, Okwuchukwu Emmanuel

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 23 October 1963

    Date Died: 15 March 2019

    Place Born: Calabar, Cross River, Nigeria

    Place Died: Munich, Bavaria, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany, Nigeria, and United States

    Subject Area(s): African (general, continental cultures), African diaspora, Contemporary (style of art), photographs, and twentieth century (dates CE)

    Career(s): authors, curators, and poets

    Institution(s): Haus der Kunst and San Francisco Art Institute


    Curator, art critic, art historian, and educator. Enwezor was born as the youngest son of an Igbo family in Calabar, Nigeria. During the Biafran war of 1967-1970, he and his family were forced to move to the city of Enugu, Nigeria. In 1982, after finishing a semester at the University of Nigeria, Enwezor moved to the Bronx, in New York. In 1987 he earned a B.A. in political sciences at Jersey City State College, now New Jersey City University. When Enwezor graduated, he moved to Manhattan and began writing poetry, which he performed at the Knitting Factory and the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. Enwezor’s study of poetry led him from language arts to art criticism. In 1993, with fellow African critics Chika Okeke-Agulu (b. 1966) and Salah M. Hassan, Enwezor launched the triannual magazine of contemporary African art, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. He recruited scholars and artists such as Olu Oguibe (b. 1964) and Carl Hancock Rux (b. 1964) to edit and write for the inaugural issue. Enwezor primarily worked on smaller exhibitions, until 1996 when Enwezor had his breakthrough as a curator of Insight: African photographer, from 1940 to the present, an exhibition of 30 African photographers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Insight was one of the first exhibitions to put contemporary African art in the context of colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states. The exhibition also propelled artists like Sam Fosso (b. 1962), Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), and Malick Sidibé (1935-2016) to international recognition.


    Enwezor is most known for his ambition as the director and chief curator of numerous Biennials, beginning with his role as artistic director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale from 1996-1997. The following year, until 2002, Enwezor was the artistic director of Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany, and was the first non-European to have the job. He also directed the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla, in Seville, Spain in 2006, the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea in 2008, and the Triennale d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo in 2012. He served as co-curator of the Echigo-Tsumari Sculpture Biennale in Japan, Cinco Continente: Biennale of Painting, in Mexico City, and Stan Douglas: Le Detroit, at the Art Institute of Chicago. Enwezor was the dean of the San Francisco Art Institute from 2005-2009 and the dean of Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany from 2011-2018. Enwezor resigned from Haus der Kunst under complicated circumstances involving a scandal where some of his staff were found out to be scientologists, which required their immediate termination as the State of Bavaria, the museums largest benefactor, considers scientology as a threat to democracy. Amidst the furor, Enwezor was also accused of mismanagement of staff and budgets. Nevertheless, in 2014, Enwezor was ranked 24th in the ArtReview list of the 100 most powerful people of the art world. Enwezor married Muna el Fituri (b. 1965). After their divorce, his partner until his death was Louise Neri, a director at the Gagosian Gallery.


    In his 1997 exhibition catalogue for the Second Johannesburg Biennale, Trade Routes: History and Geography, Enwezor defined his goal as chief curator as to examine the history of globalization through the ways an exhibition could, “explore how culture and space have been historically displaced through colonisation, migration, and technology. . . . emphasising how innovative practices have led to redefinitions and inventions of our notions of expression, with shifts in the language and discourses of art.” Here, Enwezor describes his persistent innovation and intellectual agenda when working with exhibitions. His ultimate goal in his career was to develop a transversal model of research for African art that veered the field away from the European model. Enwezor was one of a few curators in the 21st century who could claim a ‘global’ knowledge of contemporary art, though he always returned to his center, Africa. Enwezor died in 2019 after a three-year long battle with cancer.


    Selected Bibliography

    • Archive fever : uses of the document in contemporary art. New York; Gottigen: International Center of Photography. Steidl, 2008;
    • with Siegel, Katy and Wilmes, Ulrich. Postwar: art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945 – 1965 : [Haus der Kunst, Munich, from October 14, 2016, to March 26, 2017]. Munich: Prestel, 2016;
    • with Gyalui, Luz. All the world’s futures: la Biennale di Venezia, 56th International Art Exhibition. Venice: Marsilio, 2015;
    • Snap judgments: new positions in contemporary African photography. New York: International Center of Photography, 2006;
    • with eds Smith, Terry, and Condee, Nancy. Antinomies of art and culture: modernity, postmodernity, contemporaneity.Durham: Duke University Press, 2008;
    • “Repetition and differentiation, Lorna Simpson’s iconography of the racial sublime,” in Lorna Simpson. New York: Abrams, 2006;
    • with Sze, Sarah, Buchloh, B. H. D., and Hoptman, Laura J. Sarah Sze. London ; New York, NY: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2016;
    • with Bourouissa, Mohamed, Dezeuze, Anne, Donnadieu, Marc, Hunt, Amanda, and Nairn, Michael. Mohamed Bourouissa. Paris: Kamel Mennour, 2017;
    • with Zwelethu Mthethwa and Isolde Brielmaier. Zwelethu Mthethwa. New York: Aperture, 2010.


    • [obituary] Farago, Jason. 2019 “Okwui Enwezor, Curator Who Remapped Art World, Dies at 55”;
    • [obituary] Bishop, Claire. “Okwui Enwezor,” Third Text Online,, 2019;
    • Davidson, Jane Chin and Patel, Alpesh Kantilal. “Okwui Enwezor and The Art of Curating,” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (48): 6–13. doi:, 01 May 2021;
    • Enwezor, Okwui and Richards, Colin, Trade Routes: History and Geography: 2nd Johannesburg Biennale. Johannesburg Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council, p. 9, 1997;
    • Shatz, Adam. “Okwui Enwezor’s Really Big Show”, The New York Times Magazine: 2002.

    Contributors: Alana J. Hyman


    Alana J. Hyman. "Enwezor, Okwui." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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