Okwui Enwezor named as curator of 2021 Sharjah Biennial

The noted critic, writer and curator Okwui Enwezor (1963–2019) has been named as curator of the next Sharjah Biennial, opening in March 2021. The theme will be ‘Thinking Historically in the Present’.

Okwui Enwezor sadly passed away from cancer in March 2019 at the age of just 55. But had been working on the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennial for the best part of a year – Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor Al Qasimi had approached Okwui Enwezor in spring 2018 to take charge of SB15 – and Enwezor’s plans for the Biennial are already well advanced.

In particular, he proposed the Biennial as “a module with which to deal with the disruptive power of artistic monolingualism but also as a horizon of the possible to conceive another theoretical space for ‘Thinking Historically in the Present’.”

That’s the theme for SB15, both in terms of art in general – how the past, and especially the colonial past, impacts our perception of art today – and in terms of the Sharjah Biennial itself: what’s the future of the biennial model? The result could be a really significant marker for a revised view of world art.

In accordance with Enwezor’s wishes, the Biennial’s theme will actually be realised by Hoor Al Qasimi and a working group of Enwezor’s longtime collaborators – the Egyptian curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh; the German curator and Founding Director of NTU CCA Singapore Ute Meta Bauer; the Sudanese scholar, writer, art historian and Cornell professor Salah M. Hassan; and the Nigerian art historian and Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu.

These will effectively oversee the implementation of Enwezor’s curatorial concept in collaboration with an advisory committee, itself composed of some big names: architect Sir David Adjaye, artist John Akomfrah and Ashkal Alwan Director Christine Tohme (who curated SB13 in 2017). They will provide “additional consultation” on SB15.

Hoor Al Qasimi noted that it is difficult to overstate the tremendous impact Okwui Enwezor had on contemporary art and its institutions. ArtForum called him “the most influential curator of the past quarter-century … his accomplishments are legion”. The Art Newspaper named Enwezor “one of the most influential curators in history”.

Hoor al Qasimi: “difficult to overstate the impact of Okwui Enwezor”

And Salah M. Hassan said “Okwui always believed in the Sharjah Biennial as a model for displacing older, Western-based biennials by offering a cutting edge and globally relevant alternative … [SB15] represents Okwui’s insistence on the art exhibition as a platform for engaging with history, politics and society and how these shape our global present.”

Nigerian-born but essentially peripatetic and latterly based in Germany as director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Enwezor recognised the violent distortions that colonialism had inflicted on art history. That in itself is not exactly a radical insight these days; but he was able to articulate the past – his writing is acute and engaging – while at the same time apply energy and ambition to the immense project of reconfiguring the canon, providing an international counterbalance to the Western view of art.

In 2016, he was ranked 28 in the Artlyst Power100 list of the top people in the art world, largely because he had been appointed director of the Venice Biennale for the year before. But his CV includes many important projects, including the massively influential Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art – the 30-year-old Enwezor cofounded the periodical in 1994 with Chika Okeke-Agulu and Salah M Hassan, and the three continued to edit Nka twice a year up to the present. Nka aimed to overturn the “entrenched pejorative viewing of contemporary art from Africa,” as Enwezor put it in an editor’s letter in the first issue.

In 1996 came his breakthrough as a curator; his exhibition In/sight, which brought work by 30 African photographers to the Guggenheim Museum, was one of the first shows anywhere to put contemporary art from Africa in the historical and political context of colonial withdrawal and the emergence of independent African states.

In addition to the 2015 Venice Biennale, he had also curated the Johannesburg, Seville and Kwangju Biennials (1996, 2006 and 2008 respectively) and the Paris Triennale in 2012. But for many, including Hoor al Qasimi, the real eye-opener was his curation of Documenta 11 in 2002.

He was the first non-European Artistic Director of the prestigious exhibition, and his Documenta raised fundamental questions about margins and centre, globalisation, post colonialism and individual and group efforts to make sense of the world.

“Okwui’s Documenta inspired me,” said Hoor al Qasimi. “It completely changed my life, and the course of my career.”

Enwezor’s substantial preparatory work for the Sharjah Biennial continues the themes of his life. As well as 30 permanent commissions by 30 international artists, there’s a historical survey titled “Postcolonial” — a follow-on to “Postwar,” his massive 2017 exhibition of global art after World War II which showed more than 350 works by 218 artists from 65 countries at the Haus der Kunst.

To quote Okwui’s own words, “If we have an open mind, Western art doesn’t have to be seen in opposition to art from elsewhere, but can be seen in a dialogue that helps protect the differences and decisions that present the material, circumstances and conditions of production in which artists fashion their view of what enlightenment can be.”

Said Al Qasimi: “It was an enormous privilege to have been able to call Okwui a colleague and a friend. Together with his close collaborators who have joined the SB15 Working Group and Advisory Committee, we are honoured to bring Okwui’s vision for the Biennial to fruition in Sharjah. Our hope is that SB15 will serve as a platform to further explore and expand on his curatorial and intellectual legacy.”

Okwui Enwezor had made a bequest of his papers and library to Sharjah’s Africa Institute, an interdisciplinary academic research facility and think tank of which Al Qasimi is also President and Salah M. Hassan is Director. SB15 Advisory Board member David Adjaye has been commissioned to design the campus for the Institute, slated for completion in 2023.

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