Raqs Media Collective
Okwui Enwezor was a companion and a curator of the future. He knew what artists could become before they knew it themselves. We know this well.
Our first encounter with Okwui Enwezor was at the Delhi platform of Documenta 11, which took place in May 2001, during the course of which we realized, to our surprise, that he had been following our forays into thinking with moving images, documents and the city. His invitation led us to extend our engagement with legality, the making of urban space, and the commons, that marked our work and discussions in Documenta 11.
At Documenta 11, behind the scenes, Enwezor shaped an environment that was remarkable for its egalitarian élan. The canteen in Documenta Halle, where everyone - be they assistant, artist, technician, architect, designer or curator - could sit and share a working meal together (in the instal days leading up to the opening) revealed a custodial sensibility that was confident in its vision and did not bother with the received odium of cultural, historical, geographical, social or professional hierarchies. It was a daily object lesson in understanding that curation is as much about the conviviality of ideas, energies, people and presences as it is about questions of how works and practices hang together. It is as much about how people, human beings, of all shapes, sizes, hue and provenance, are brought and held together before an opening, as much as it is about how works stand together, after.
We remember fondly how he measured the venues of Documenta with his majestic strides -stretching space by the metre on days when he was feeling expansive, and returning the dimensions of each work to its predetermined measure on other days. Notwithstanding the way it caused minor turbulences in the best laid plans of exhibition architects, his generous steps offered all a sense of an elasticity of space in exhibition making.
Over the years that we knew and worked with Enwezor, this world-straddling gait of his thought, this evolved grace that matched inclusiveness with incisiveness, remained both an inspiration and a provocation.
A little more than a decade later, we remember how acutely he responded to our invitation to be present at the opening of our show “Untimely Calendar” at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in Delhi, in the winter of 2014. His speech, situating our practice in the terms of global shift and churning in the temporalities, or, timelines and timeliness, of contemporary art, was more than generous. He could situate us in the world, and situate the world in us. It offered us the provocation of a challenge, ‘how to become a conduit for the futures that one desires without losing a foothold in the times and spaces that claim one’.
Throughout his curating life, in his interaction with us, and with others like us, Enwezor maintained this fine balance between the demand for a commitment to being anchored on the one hand, and a propensity to offer emancipatory provocations on the other. He was the total antithesis of the rootless cosmopolitan, not because he was not cosmopolitan, but because he nourished the distributed tangle of his roots/routes across the world.
We remember, how despite his busy schedule during those abbreviated days in Delhi in 2014, he found time to meet with and listen to young curators of the PRAC forum in Delhi, besides of course to meet Vivan Sundaram to begin planning his retrospective at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich. He also made time for an excursion to the dereliction of ‘Coronation Park’ to deepen the foundations of a curatorial invitation from him that would result in the sculptural procession of Coronation Park in the Biennale that he curated at Venice. In the space of a few hours, he showed how to esteem and honor a senior colleague, how to nourish those younger than oneself, and how to inspire one’s peers.
The future has taken Okwui Enwezor to where he will always be, just beyond reach. Here, in the present, where he also belongs, we will miss him. Everyday.
The last time I met Okwui Enwezor was in the summer of 2017, when I was in Munich having just visited Documenta 14. It was at the coffee shop outside Haus de Kuntz, (an institution he was to leave unceremoniously soon after) on a sunny afternoon. He met me with his usual big smile, hug and warm greetings. I knew that he was quite unwell, but not that he would pass away so young and so soon, nor did his manner reveal it. By then he had already re-defined the art world many times, extending it far beyond the ‘West,’ but still had not tired of doing so. Each exhibition he curated was driven by the same spirit and intention. I had over the past years met him so many times, and saw his work extend from the Venice Bienniale to the momentous exhibition, Postwar. It was always a challenge to engage with his curatorial breadth and the urgency as well as agency he felt for the times.
That urgency was to me his defining characteristic - it came with an intellectual sharpness, honesty and fearlessness, and a desire to reveal the interconnected and multi-layered world the ‘West’ had become blind to. He could have belonged to any world, and he would have brought to it the same degree of incisive passion, inclusiveness and caring. In many senses, he was all there and engaging, but at the same time on another plane, seeing it all from another perspective.
It was Okwui, who had put me on the art map, so to speak, almost 18 years ago when he invited an unknown to the elite art world of Documenta 11. Sitting in my office-studio, Sarat Maharaj and he spoke at length about my pursuits, my street and labour photography, my activist engagements. I was surprised at his interest and the research he had done into my overall concerns and practice, not typical of art curators I had met thus far. I found out only later who I was really speaking to, such was the down to earth everydayness to his demeanor. Possibly he was not like that to everyone in the complicated and often unforgiving art world he inhabited and transformed. But to his artists, he was just that - and, above all, he never forgot them!
It's hard to work and keep living normally knowing Okwui is not there anymore. Okwui was a leader, without doubt. One you could follow, a rare person. Incredibly intelligent with a combination of analysis, foresight, determination, conviction and compassion. He showed how one can by joyfully courageous, a graceful power that I will miss deeply. And remember always.
I recall my first meeting with him in Delhi, as I left the room I saw him racing out down thecorridorfollowingmetillwewerealoneforabriefmoment. Just seconds before the elevator doors opened, he wrapped his long arms around me and said 'trust us, we mean what we say'. My second meeting was near the steps of the Fridericianum, in Kassel, on the opening day of Documenta 11. There were huge crowds all over, I didn't see him coming and again he wrapped his arms around me and said quietly in my ear, ' Don't listen to anyone, just trust yourself and keep on doing what you are doing'. And then he disappeared into the crowd.
Okwui changed many structures, opened institutions, curators, students and writers to multiple streams of thought and artistic practices. Our discussions though were seldom about the art world. He never came across to me as one who felt that he was a pioneer, or had created radical shifts. In fact we always cracked jokes about it all, including Documenta 11 and ended up discussing mostly politics or current issues that were obsessing him or me. We followed each other’s work closely from far, he would ask a few questions, get some more information about me, crack another joke about Documenta 11 experiences and impact, and then we would go back to discussing politics again. And sometimes we would discuss briefly strategies to personally survive, work and live in such complicated times. My last exchange with him was a few months ago, as we discussed Documenta 14 and the issues facing Documenta 15. Inspite of the pain he was remarkably clear, aware, committed and lovingly gracious as he shared his perspective on the way forward. Goodbye Okwui and know fully well that the D11 legacy stills lives on in many ways.