Okwui Enwezor in conversation with Anthony Downey

08 May 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.

In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey speaks to Okwui Enwezor about the future of curating and the horizons of its potentiality.

Anthony Downey: Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today with Okuwi Enwezor, who has just given a talk as part of a panel on documenta and the series of documentas over the last 10 to 20 years as part of the Global Art Forum at Dubai. Okuwi, I wanted to start by recalling something you said in the panel about diagnostic and prognostic approaches to curating. You were talking about horizons of potentiality, how you as a curator work towards the future. Could you flesh that out in relation to your curatorial practice; how does a moment of prognosis – not just diagnosis – of a specific moment in time, but this moment of looking forward, help you as a curator?

Okuwi Enwezor: There are two ways in which these two terms are intertwined in my curatorial project as a whole, and that has to do with the fact that, fundamentally, any exhibition that has any sense of historicity by necessity has to be diagnostic. That is to say that you have a field of survey, you have a sense of what that field might perhaps be able to divulge, and how that can be put before a disciplinary context – in this case in the history of exhibitions and art history.

Second, how do you bring that forward to the present? And this is where the prognostic aspect comes in; that is to say, if the task of the historicity of an exhibition is to identify ideas, works, practices and positions that may have not been properly understood, I think the task of curator, and the task of the exhibition, is to use that particular system of exhibition-making to make that present and visible, and therefore to propose a broader or wider horizon of what I would call the horizon of the possible, within the constellation of histories and ideas that have continuously shaped the way we understand contemporary and modern artistic practice.

AD: Obviously the role of the curator has changed dramatically, even in our lifetime, and you mentioned earlier that originally the documenta curator was not a curator as such – the artistic director, the term, only came into use in the last 20 years. That hasn’t forded an enormous amount of freedom for the curator, but it also comes with inherent problems. I’m thinking of the way in which contemporary curating – and you did mention this – has become almost like a vanguard of globalization; it is opening up emerging markets, it’s finding new artists, it’s opening up areas, just as neoliberalism attempts to look at emerging markets and open up new areas. How do you personally avoid that in your curatorial practice; how do you avoid this move towards a globalization process?

OE: Well I don’t seek to avoid it, I seek to embrace it, in fact. And I’ll tell you why: I think that one of the preoccupations of artists who, say, in the last generation existed in the shadow of what was considered a larger complex of art production, was the opacity of what one could call the art system, the opacity of the art system towards their concerns, their ideas, and their work. So in terms of the current context in which we are operating – which you call globalization, and which you connect to neoliberal market expansion – for me, it’s very important to see that what is changing is not necessarily the globalization of art, but a change in the nature of the art system. The relationship between artistic production and the art system is something that I feel is vitally connected today, and that is why we can sit in Dubai and talk about the exhibition of a Pakistani émigré artist living in England, and his work being shown in Sharjah –

AD: Rasheed?

OE: Yes, Rasheed Araeen. So already you’re seeing multiple circuits of relationships being melded together, and it is only possible because the art system in this part of the world is growing. What was not possible in the art system where Rasheed himself has resided over the last 50 years has suddenly become possible, and now we can have a conversation about this particular mode of thinking. So I say that globalization – positive or negative – has deeply impacted the way I think of the circulation of signs that we call art, and the work that those signs do each time we are confronted by them, each time we are able to work with them, or we have the privilege of working with them, and each time we work with artists.

There is a growing awareness that the inferiority complex of those who were working under the shadow of the Western art system had to do with that opacity to their concerns, there is a growing awareness that that is shifting somehow. That does not mean it has disappeared, but it means that the Western artistic complex was highly privileged simply because of the art system in museums, auction houses, galleries, and so on. That in itself is also changing in the context of what I do, and that’s why invitations like coming to Dubai – normally, I don’t really like going to art fairs – but invitations like this provide an opportunity to have a different kind of conversation, and that is simply because of the protean nature of the imagined art system within the context you were talking about.

AD: Interesting, because again what you’re using there very effectively, and have done for your career, is a process of de-territorialization through the very means of territorialization, i.e. globalization opening up completely new systems, completely new networks of interaction for you to work productively in as a curator. I’m just thinking, we are sitting in Dubai, we are sitting in a region that has seen a lot of turmoil, in a region that has seen a lot of revolutions from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and so forth. Do you think there’s a danger – and looking as a curator from the outside in – that there’s an overt politicization of this region which returns us to a neocolonial model, or a colonial model, whereby this region can only be seen in terms of conflict?

OE: That’s not my own particular take, at least. I never thought that Tunisia, Libya and so on were coextensive with the Middle East, I always thought of them as being on the other side –

AD: Maghrebi.

OE: Maghreb, Mashrek…

AD: And looking towards Europe!

OE: Yes, and looking towards Europe. But, that said, I think that the point you’re making is a correct one. The question is, what do we do with the turmoil that we currently face in relation to what I call the changing relationship of citizens and subjects in societies in transition? These societies in transition are marked by many forms of rivalries, tribalism, class relations, and so on, but that in itself should not prevent us from looking into it. That in itself should not prevent us from looking at possible models of building an effective and de-territorialized art system.

I do not necessarily want to shy away from the fact that there is a sudden kind of frisson that conflict produces, if only to say that it sharpens our awareness that there are times of lassitude and there are times of great turmoil. Both of those times provide opportunities and create third spaces in which to puzzle with the fact that a work of art in itself always exists in these indeterminate spaces and times. So, should we only go to places that are safe? I work in Munich, in Bavaria, where there are hardly any sharp edges; the edges are rounder, much more domesticated, much more – or seemingly – trouble-free. I’m not so sure that it’s the most vital spaces where sharp thinking can thrive.

We need to really push against the notion that turmoil will always be instrumentalized. Of course, it will be instrumentalized, but nevertheless I think it’s important to recognize that what is going on in the places that you’ve mentioned has to do with coming to terms with certain historical facts that are still being worked out after a very long time. That is why I call them societies in transition, rather than call them the developing world or the Third World. In these societies in transition, what I find really quite energetic is the emergence not of the public, but of the civic; I am very interested in the emergence of the civic. This is something that has drawn me to this region time and again, having had the opportunity to travel to a number of these countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, and so on).

AD: Could you talk a little bit more about this because this fascinates me too, the notion of an emerging civil society in a region where civil society was effectively outlawed. Do you see artists contributing a productive role to that production of a civil society in their engagement with public space, opening spaces for thought, opening up who can say what, where, to whom, when. And again, would you suggest that we should be encouraging that?

OE: Well I don’t know if one should be encouraging anything. What I do observe is that what has been a very visible part of artistic production in this part of the world for at least the last 20 years is the emergence of what I call strategies and practices of the civic. Not so much civil society, but the civic in terms of the relationship of the self to the other, and the relationship of the self and other to the society. The artistic space or the cultural space has become the space where these confines of ideals, if you will, has been developed and shaped.

Whether you look in Lebanon, and think about the role of Ashkal Alwan, Home Works, the work of the artist, or if you look all across the region, it is not the classical, political art that you find in these particular places, but works that seek to create, through the work itself, a point of conversation, a contact zone, so that the art becomes a continent in and of itself. This for me is very interesting and persuasive, and you see it in Egypt, you see it in Tunisia, you see it in Morocco, and there are both institutions and artists who work across these different frameworks. You see it if you look in a place like Tangiers, if you think about Meeting Points, which is this type of transnational, roving exhibition and event around performance, theatre, art and music. You see it also in what has been happening even within official circuits here in Dubai, and in Sharjah.

This production of the civic for me is not only particular to this region, but is something that is an important aspect of my current research as a curator. If you remember in Europe, 1968 marked a very particular moment of breakthrough for many people, in which artists also became citizens, not simply autonomous subjects. And in the 80s, through the multicultural debates and the politicization of gender and feminist agendas in the art world, a new front opened, and that was really a front to expand the public sphere. But these moments were not very much connected to civic-ness as such, and this is what I find very productive in the current situation of the emergence of civic-ness, both in the political sphere and in the cultural sphere.

AD: I want to ask you one final question; we are talking about current research, and of course you were recently appointed to be the next Artistic Director of the Venice Biennale. You joked with Adam Szymczyk earlier asking him for the artist list, I’m going to turn it back on you!

OE: Mine is more immediate; Adam has three years to deliver and I have almost a year to do so. Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do in Venice, and I’m very honest about that. It’s a project that is taking shape and one might not know what this will be until, really, the very end of this year or the beginning of next year.

AD: But you’re thinking that what we’ve been expressing here will inform that decision-making process?

OE: Perhaps, perhaps. I’m not sure that this is where the Venice Biennale 2015 will head, but definitely the kinds of things that I have been preoccupied with, the kinds of ideas I have been preoccupied with, over the last few years inevitably will find their way into the project.

AD: Okuwi, thank you very much for your time.

Okwui Enwezor is a curator, art critic, editor and writer, and the Director of the Visual Arts Sector of the 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Since 2011, he has been the Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He was Artistic Director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa (1996-1998), ofdocumenta 11 in Kassel, Germany (1998-2002), the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla in Spain (2005-2007), the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008) and of the Triennal d’Art Contemporain of Paris at the Palais de Tokyo (2012). Enwezor’s wide-ranging practice spans the world of international exhibitions, museums, academia, and publishing. In 1994 he founded NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art published by Duke University Press. He is the author of numerous essays and books, among others:Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008).


Enwezor, Okwui. “Okwui Enwezor in Conversation with Anthony Downey.” Interview by Anthony Downey. Ibraaz. Ibraaz, 8 May 2014.