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Okwui Enwezor and the Power of Art Publishing

A tribute to the late curator and his belief in the primacy of documentation

I first came into contact with Okwui Enwezor in 2014 when he asked me to write an essay for the catalogue of ‘All the World’s Futures’, the exhibition he curated for the 56th Venice Biennale. Prior to this seemingly pivotal moment in both our professional careers – he was the Biennale’s first director of African-descent and I was starting out as a curator and writer – I had followed Okwui’s exhibitions with an intense admiration, peeling through the pages of each of his doorstop-sized catalogues, which are as physically cumbersome as they are intellectually dense. I was too young to attend most of his early exhibitions – ‘In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present’ at the Guggenheim in New York (1996); Documenta 11 in Kassel (2002); ‘The Short Century’ at the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich and then MoMA PS1 (2001/2) – but I have come to believe that they demonstrate how the catalogue as a medium can offer something of a forensic analysis of the exhibition itself.

‘All the World’s Futures’, central exhibition of the 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2015. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

‘All the World’s Futures’, central exhibition of the 56th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia 2015. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia

Okwui believed in the primacy of documentation, both as an act of recording the present and as a vital historiographic force. For him, the publication was itself an extension of exhibition making, expanding the territory of contemporary art practice and its discursive fields well beyond the confines of gallery walls. Within a short window of time, Okwui and I became friends; I went from studying his catalogues to exchanging books and notes on essays with him; he always encouraged me. Today, it seems fitting to be writing my homage to Okwui for a magazine with which we share affectionate and familial ties. After all, this is how Okwui reached me and so many others in the first place: through the power of art publishing.

Main image: Okwui Enwezor, 2015. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Joerg Koch

Osei Bonsu is a curator and writer based in London, UK, and Paris, France. He is a contributing editor of frieze.

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