Okwui Enwezor, Nigerian Art Historian and Venice Biennale Curator Who Was a Force for Non-Western Art, Has Died at 55

The revered Nigerian-born thinker has died after a long battle with cancer.

Okwui Enwezor. Photo: Joerg Koch/Getty Images.
Okwui Enwezor. Photo: Joerg Koch/Getty Images.

Okwui Enwezor, the deeply influential Nigerian curator, poet, and educator who established new ways of thinking about contemporary art with powerful shows including the 2015 Venice Biennale and documenta 11 in 2002, has died at age 55 from cancer. He is the only African-born curator to organize the two prestigious exhibitions.

The Haus Der Kunst, where he was artistic director from 2011 to 2018, confirmed his death by telephone.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said Enwezor “will go down in history as one of the greatest curators of all time.”

In an interview last August, Enwezor said he was “still optimistic and full of hope” despite the cancer diagnosis that led him to leave the Haus der Kunst. And even though he had been undergoing treatment for more than three years, he still found time to organize exhibitions. This month, the Haus der Kunst, which he left amid controversies including a budgeting shortfall, opened his survey of Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui. Enwezor was noticeably absent from the opening.

“Okwui’s passing is a huge loss to those of us who could call him a friend, but also a devastating loss to the art community as a whole,” the architect David Adjaye tells artnet News.

The Nigerian-born curator moved to New York in 1982 when he was 18 and studied at New Jersey City University. After finishing his studies, he wrote poetry and was a presence at cafes including the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. He made his breakthrough as a curator in 1996, when he organized “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to Present” at the Guggenheim Museum.

Throughout his career, Enwezor put special emphasis on expanding the contemporary art canon to include artists from around the world. His 2017 exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965,” included nearly 220 artists from 65 countries. He was known for his expansive exhibitions (his Venice Biennale included 136 artists) and his conceptual rigor. His international legacy included leading the 1996 Johannesburg Biennale and the South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale in 2008.

Enwezor was the first African-born curator in the history of the Venice Biennale, and presented a sprawling and visceral show focusing on worldwide violence and political upheaval. Among other notable aspects of the exhibition was its inclusion of John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, which was commissioned for the exhibition.

“Okwui was this enormously prophetic figure, wise beyond his years, whose insights—vision, if you will—literally shaped the universe many of us now inhabit,” Akomfrah tells artnet News.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.


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