The Nigerian poet and art critic Okwui Enwezor is director of the eleventh Documenta in Kassel. Under him the art manifestation became a world exhibition more then ever. "I do not wake up in the morning with the idea: God, I am the first non-western, nomadic diaspora director of the Documenta"
That the coming Documenta will attract more public then ever is for sure. Responsible for that fact is one man: Okwui Enwezor. The Nigerian poet and art critic was asked to become artistic director of Documenta two years ago. And with the choice of Enwezor as first non-European, the size of the exhibition was a fact in advance. It is going to be gigantic. On the edge of the city they even rented a new location: a renovated brewery. The budget has been raised to elf million euro, twenty percent more then the previous one. A hundred and sixteen artists are invited, from forty-eight countries, from all over the world, under which eight African countries: Nigeria, Morocco, Congo, Ivory Coast, Benin, Uganda, Senegal, and South Africa. A unique phenomenon.
> You are being seen as the ambassador of globalism.
Enwezor, for the occasion dressed in a black, waisted garden suit with red neck shawl, laughs heartly about it. "It depends who is calling me that. I am just the director of the eleventh Documenta. And for that I have a clear mandate from the board: to look for art activities that are worthwhile to show. If that makes me the ambassador of global art, so be it. I do not see it like that".
False modesty or an attempt to stay low profile? In many interviews Enwezor (1962) designates himself as a "world citizen". He grew up in Nigeria, moved to New York when he was nineteen and learned the art of curator not out of books, but through befriended artists and intellectuals -"by coincidence" - and discovered the huge gap in art history: the lack of a true appreciation of non-western art. That was the reason he appointed himself to be advocate of mainly African art. Enwezor is co-founder of the Journal of Contemporary African Art
, organised a exhibition in 1996 on forty years of African photography (in the Guggenheim Museum) and became director of the second biennale of Johannesburg a year later. The timing, in which Enwezor threw himself into the global discussion, is amazing. A South African weekly called him "esu ulegba": someone with a sly view. An opportunist, blowing with every wind. Enwezor sees this in a more positive way:" I have the antenna of an insect, advanced antenna that I point worldwide".
> Why did you leave Nigeria?
"I grew up during the civil war, as many did in the east of Nigeria. Surprisingly enough, excitement about the future was prevalent. We had our own raw materials. There was hope. At the same time the intellectual framework had disappeared. Writers and artists, the whole intelligentsia had left or had been murdered. Everything was marginalized. I left for New York to study politicology and literature. Not art history. Art historians are bad curators. There too many. But in New York I discovered that it was just as provincial. They didn't have a notion of "the other side". Of course I could broaden my horizon, because I was part of the intellectual world. That is what I wanted, because my plan was to go back to Nigeria to contribute something to the reconstruction of my country. Because of globalisation, the need has become less. Nowadays, it doesn't really matter were you live".
To give a voice to the recent, post-colonial past, Enwezor organised The Short Century
last year. The exhibition is about the period 1945-1994, from the beginning of de-colonialisation till the election of Mandela as president of South Africa.
> That exhibition was a pilot balloon for the upcoming Documenta?
"No, the starting-point of the Short Century was the wars of freedom that were being fought on the African continent and its consequences. You could call the Documenta post- nationalistic on its best."
> You are the first Afro-American director. Do you want to show the art world that art is not a typical European invention?
"No, I am not that arrogant. I have an American passport, but in a cultural way I feel attached to Africa. But I don't wake up in the morning with the idea; God, I am the first non-western, nomadic, diaspora director of the Documenta. But that I have to show the period in which I live, as good as I can".
> But now you are able to complete the emancipation of African art?
"That has never been my intention. It is not about western and non-western art. I do not want to teach anyone a lesson. Documenta has been changed through the years, from 1955 till now. But I do not see myself as different from other directors. You can't say Rudi Fuchs had a preference for Dutch artists. Or that Jan Hoet had a special eye for Belgiums, Catherine David for French artists and Harold Szeemann for Swiss. It is same with me. African Art is not over-represented on this Documenta. "
In the preamble of the Documenta, Enwezor organised with his staff of five co-workers four discussion platforms in Laos, Berlin, Vienna and Saint Lucia the past year. His plans were immediately criticised for being too theoretical, too vague and too ambitious. Art that was involved in political, social misunderstandings and urban development -sounds fantastic of course- but wasn't it too much? If you try to go through the report of those platforms, you will get a picture of the intention. It is quit extensive indeed. The terminology that is used, points at diverse subjects as post colonialism, entropy, inter-zones, cultural self-assuredness and identification. But the slogan that returns most in this flow of words is the idea of "geography of culture". It is actually an old subject: commitment between place, artist and art. Rudi Fuch liked to talk about it. How the work of Baselitz can only be German. That the work of Rainer could only have been made in Vienna because of Freud. The only difference with Enwezor is, that he stretched the "geography of imagination" to global proportions.
"Geographic ties are very real", Enwezor ensures us. "We were not satisfied with a virtual image of the world. The group of artists that we choose is very divers because we did travel around the world. Seen from London or New York it is very easy to say that art has stayed the same or not. But people informed us in Beirut and Teheran. What we wanted to show with those four discussion platforms is that Kassel is no longer the centre point of the Documenta. "
> So, you want to attract more attention for art from the periphery?
"Not that far. There was a discussion for a long time what art from the periphery is. Attention grew for a lot of things created in outside areas. I do not believe in that. Maybe a central idea of what art is, no longer exists, but what artists and other intellectuals do, is generated in big cities, not outside.""
> But you have selected "airport artists" without a fixed residence.
"I do not describe them in such terms. I am not against a nomadic idea in art. I object the idea that borders do not exist anymore. I noticed that a few years ago when I was preparing the biennale of Johannesburg and was invited for an exhibition in Italia. The Italian consulate in New York refused me a visa although I had an American passport. There I was: the so-called embodiment of globalisation and open borders". How pragmatic is the contemporary artist who deals with subjects such as political and multi-cultural problems or economic abuse, like the American photographer Allan Sekula? Sekula has been photographing harbours around the world for years. Harbours were workers are on strike because of unequal working relations, under-payment and bad working conditions. A few years ago, a inhabitant of Glasgow, blamed him, during a discussion in Rotterdam, for a lack of engagement: Sekula travelled up and down to show his admonishing finger, but to what end?
Enwezor: "Such a reproach is wrong. Sekula's documentary photos handle more then just Glasgow. His approach is broader then that. It is about global commerce. He want to give a expressive analysis, a virtual essay of what happens in harbours all over the world, from Singapore to Manchester and from Liverpool to Los Angeles".
> You invited more utopian artists like "our" Constant Nieuwenhuys, with his New Babylon project.
"Art is not about solutions. Documenta is not going to be an exhibition of visual end products. It will be a diagnostic exhibition: an interdisciplinary research without conclusions. Everything is changing constantly and we try to join in".
How Enwezor thinks that the public understands these starting-points stays unclear. The World Art - in complete end products or theoretical half products- has so many faces nowadays, that it is unthinkable that visitors of the Documenta will recognize it, let alone appreciate it.
> Isn't the Documenta the hundredth "world-exhibition"?
"It might be an overview, but one of artworks. We brought together the most diverge disciplines: paintings as well as statues, photos, film, architecture, video and new media."
> Is the public able to follow all this?
"God forbid that only insiders will come. Art is very complex of course, but luckily a lot of people are interested and not discouraged by the pessimism that lives in the art-world. We want to show how vital art is. That art has a relation with popular culture, but is not bound to capitalism".
This is the shortened version of an article that appeared in the Dutch magazine "Vrij Nederland" on June 8 2002