Okwui Enwezor (54) becomes this year’s main curator at the Venice Biennale after a series of scandals in which the private and the public intertwine. The first one of those scandals coincided with his departure from the Art Institute of San Francisco where he was both accused (in an email campaign) of rape and of lying about his CV. A few months later, struggling with alcoholism, he thrashed a collector’s house after a binge. At that point, not few people thought that his career was over. Thus, his appointment at the Venice Biennale comes, to say the least, a surprise.
Son of an affluent Nigerian family from Igbos, Okwui emigrated to the United States at sixteen years old where he obtained a BA in Political Science for the rather unprestigious New Jersey University. After that he embraced poetry and it was through this that he got in touch with those areas of contemporary art that coalesce around art and language. During those years, he joined Chika Okeke-Agulu and Salah Hassam in the organisation of a series of literary meetings that were held in his own Brooklyn flat. It was then when he became bold enough to organise two exhibitions in a couple of minor museums without any art history or contemporary art background behind him.
It was in 1996 when he got his break when invited to curate a show on African photography at the Guggenheim Museum called ‘In/Sight’. At that point, there were no African curators that could broker artists from that continent. Enwezor did not hesitate about, took the opportunity and went for it. I guess that is the reason why he was invited this year to Venice. In times of globalisation, Africa, even without the necessary formation, is supposed to be represented in the art exhibition that, allegedly, gathers the art of the whole world. Having said this, Okwui Enwezor’s relationship with the visual culture seems to be insufficient which raises more questions than answers when it comes to making sense of the way contemporary art practitioners conduct their careers. J A T