Okwui Enwezor named first African-born director of the Venice Biennale

Curator, critic and writer Okwui Enwezor is the first African-born to be appointed to the position in the biennale’s history.

On 4 December 2013, Nigerian-born American Okwui Enwezor has been named the Director of the Visual Arts Sector of the 56th Venice Biennale, which will take place in 2015. Enwezor will curate the biennale’s International Art Exhibition, making him the first African-born curator to hold the position.

Okwui Enwezor. Photograph by Andreas Gebert. Image courtesy Venice Biennale Press Office.

Okwui Enwezor. Photograph by Andreas Gebert. Image courtesy Venice Biennale Press Office.

International experience and scope

Okwui Enwezor is a seasoned curator, art critic and writer. He has been the Director of Haus der Kunst in Munich since 2011. His curatorial achievements include, among others, events such as Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany (1998-2002), the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008) and the Triennal d’Art Contemporain in Paris (2012). He is also the founder of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, has published several books and has held academic positions at various universities in the United States.

Okwui Enwezor’s interests lie in pan-global art, primarily of the twentieth and 21st centuries. He also specialises in modern and contemporary art from Africa and the African diaspora, and theories of migration and post-colonialism. Enwezor’s research spans various media, including photography, video, archives, museum history, photographic documentation and photojournalism.

The Venice Biennale encompasses a panorama of contemporary art from across the world. The first edition was held in 1895. In the biennale’s century-long history, this will be the first time that the visual art exhibition is in the hands of an African curator. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Enwezor said that it is too early to say what shape the 56th Venice Biennale will take, but he was quoted in the press release as saying that “the institution of La Biennale itself will be a source of inspiration in planning the Exhibition.

Amorphous boundaries in a globalised world

Paolo Baratta, Chair of the Board of Directors of La Biennale di Venezia, said in the press release announcing the appointment:

Enwezor has investigated, in particular, the complex phenomenon of globalisation in relation to local roots. His personal experience is a decisive starting point for the geographic range of his analysis, for the temporal depth of recent developments in the art world, and for the variegated richness of the present.

In a lecture at the Ludwig Museum in February 2013, Okwui Enwezor spoke about the problematic discourses of margins based on nationality that are a crucial element of the pavilion structure of the Venice Biennale. Having grown up in Nigeria, moved to the United States to continue his education and curated events globally, Enwezor belongs to a generation that moves easily between localities. This understandably informs his curatorial vision. In a 2009 interview with The Japan Times, Enwezor said:

Coming from Nigeria was both a limit and an advantage. (…) But my generation of curators were historically timely. That sense of timeliness enabled us to realize that these limits were to be breached. (…) The 1990s were the moment of really undoing those limits, a moment to say that globalisation – 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.

Trinh T. Minh-ha Surname Viet given name Nam, 1989 16 mm color film, 108 min Directed, written and edited by Trinh T. Minh-ha Production design by Jean-Paul Bourdier Cinematography: K. Beeler

Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Surname Viet given name Nam’, 1989, 16mm colour film, 108 min., at La Triennale 2012, curated by Okwui Enwezor.

In 2012, Enwezor was the Artistic Director of La Triennale at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, for which the theme was “Intense Proximity”. As the site of the convergence of art and ethnography, Enwezor said that the goal of the project was to “shift from the idea of national space, as a constituted physical location, to a frontier space that constantly assumes new morphologies and new models of categorisation.”

The 56th International Art Exhibition will be held at the Giardini and Arsenale in Venice from 9 May 2015 to 22 November 2015.

Kriti Bajaj

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Related Topics: curatorial practice, biennales, events in Venice

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