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Simon Njami on Okwui Enwezor’s Impossible Mission

‘Wherever he is now, I know he is waiting for me. There is so much we did not have the time to address’

 Okwui Enwezor, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images)

 Okwui Enwezor, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images

Bisi Silva left us few weeks ago. Now it is Okwui’s time. I cannot separate those losses. They occurred in such a strange sequence. I remember them both well: they were my accomplices, members of my generation. We fought the same fight. I feel alone somehow, even if there is a growing number of younger curators out there, doing great work. I met Bisi in London in the late 1980s. She was an intern at the Africa Centre. I shall always remember what she told me, with certainty: ‘I am not going to stay here. I am going to open a Centre in Lagos.’ And so she did. I met Okwui later, in the early ‘90s in New York. He wanted to know more about Revue Noire, and told me about his magazine Nka, which he founded soon after with Salah Hassan.

I was immediately struck by Okwui’s drive. He wanted to move quickly, as if he knew his days were numbered. Indeed, he moved quickly: after the establishment of Nka, he came to my office in Paris with a curator from the Guggenheim. They wanted to make an exhibition with African photographers. I was fascinated by Okwui’s ability to absorb everything; facts he learned not a minute before were digested in a blink. In 2006 he curated ‘Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography’ at the International Center of Photography in New York, which became an instant classic. From that moment, nothing could stop him. I shall not detail his achievements here – they are public knowledge. I am more interested in the force that drove him, pushing him further, as if he were engaged in an impossible mission, one he knew might have no end.

I remember our discussions. If my main goal, back then, was to place African artists on all global platforms and to build a set of critical tools that would allow them to be understood for what they were and not what the world wanted them to be, Okwui already wanted to challenge the western gaze in its own field; to deconstruct the discourse about art, not solely in Africa, but internationally. The 2012 triennial that he conceived in Paris, ‘Intense Proximity: An Anthology of the Near and the Far’, summarizes the vision that we shared: the world’s artists have more in common than we are eager to admit and it is pointless to underline their differences. The creative process is the same everywhere. It is driven by material circumstances – history, geography, politics – and it would be wrong to believe that an Indian or Japanese artist is fundamentally different from a European artist. This intense proximity is never to be taken for granted. It requires constant dialogue, constant curiosity and constant respect. There is no major or minor art.

We had a lot in common. Even if our backgrounds were different, we embarked on an endless journey. Though we were both living far from Africa and our quest took us even farther, it was a vibrant inspiration for both of us. Okwui’s latest show, at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, is in that respect, a sort of memorial. It is the largest retrospective dedicated to the Ghanaian master El Anatsui. El represents all that we’ve been fighting for: an artist rooted on the continent, but whose power extends beyond all borders. Koyo Kouoh told me that from his bed, Okwui was still giving instructions, correcting details. He knew that it would be his last show, and he wanted it to be perfect.

Wherever he is now, I know he is waiting for me. There is so much we did not have the time to address.

Farewell, my brother. I am not joining you yet, but I’ll be seeing you sometime, not too soon.

This article appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Okwui Enwezor 1963-2019’

Simon Njami is an independent curator, lecturer, art critic and novelist based in Paris, France.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019
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