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One upon a time…a urinal
How contemporary art brought to light the courage of Okwui Enwezor
Africa
15.9.2020 Words by Giulia Celegon

The starting point remains a urinal. To some, it was a stupid joke, but Marcel Duchamp didn’t want to joke, so disrespectful and brave as few, started contemporary art with one of his most particular Ready-made. The criticism that accepted him, including that of having simply exhibited an object, still accompany contemporary art today, from Christo to Cattelan, often accused of being too simplistic and easy to execute. Fortunately, important institutions, such as Venice Biennale Arte, accept the challenge of betting on these exceptional artists, who privilege content and message like few others. Okwui Enwezor, who died March 15, 2019, at the age of 55, was one of those critics who believed in them and in the power of art in all its forms: born in Nigeria, he soon became a cosmopolitan and interested in the world and its beauty, which he wanted to enclose in the N-KA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, founded by him in 1994, giving a new voice to late-twentieth-century African art, as the name of the newspaper proclaims, an Igbo concept which refers to art, creativity and creative expression.
Always interested in politics, Okwui Enwezor committed himself to ensure that the European-American-centric model was scratched to make room for the ignored realities of other continents, such as Africa, to build a plurality of points of view, because “What people of color had to say at the time was not valued, it was not seen as relevant, or as part of the bigger story” (*1), and in his opinion, art, as the most intimate expression of a psychological, physical and social condition, can only interweave with the contemporary cultural and political context. 

So aware of the sense of not belonging to which black people often have to succumb (he studied in the United States of America in the 1980s, the Fair Housing Act, which prevents housing discrimination based on race, had only been approved 12 years earlier), he was determined not to give any explanation for his existence or not to harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex (*2), so he became a reference point for contemporary art, diaspora, immigration, post-colonialism (In/Sight: Africa Photographers, 1940 to the Present was one of the first art exhibitions to represent Africa by Africans). 

The first non-European to lead the German Art Exhibitions (Documenta 11), Okwui Enwezor was also the director of Haus Der Kunst of Munich, of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale and of 2nd Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla (just to name a few), and it is no coincidence that he is also the first African artistic director and curator of Venice Biennale: in 2015 he directed the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale All the World’s Futures, focused on progress, on fractures, on life that goes on and on the steps it takes, on politics (live reading of Marx’s Capital was performed every day for nearly seven months without interruption). 

Venice Biennale, which has become one of Okwui Enwezor’s houses in the world, has decided to pay tribute to him by awarding him the Special Golden Lion. The prize, also awarded to Maurizio Calvesi, Germano Celant and Vittorio Gregotti, was presented on Tuesday, September 1st at the Giardini della Biennale, three days after the opening of Le muse inquiete (The Disquieted Muses)

Okwui Enwezor is not only a striking example of how important it is to consider art as a tool to communicate, but he is also the testimony of how contemporary art can survive over time and become a vehicle of knowledge, justice, equity and culture. Because it is never just a urinal.

 

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1. Quynh Tran, “Rethinking Art with Curator Okwui Enwezor”,
Companion #11,  https://www.freundevonfreunden.com/interviews/rethinking-art-with-curator-okwui-enwezor/ (ultimo accesso 8/9/2020)

2. Jason Farago, “Okwui Enwezor, Curator Who Remapped Art World, Dies at 55”, The New York Times, 18 March 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/18/obituaries/okwui-enwezor-dead.html