Okwui Enwezor, Curator Who Remapped Art World, Dies at 55

By Jason Farago

Okwui Enwezor, an influential Nigerian curator whose large-scale exhibitions displaced European and American art from its central position as he forged a new approach to art for a global age, died on Friday in Munich. He was 55.

The cause was cancer, said his partner, Louise Neri.

In ambitious, erudite, carefully argued exhibitions staged in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States, Mr. Enwezor (pronounced en-WEH-zore) presented contemporary art against a backdrop of world history and cultural exchange.

His 2002 edition of Documenta, an important exhibition that occurs once every five years in Kassel, Germany, stands as a major achievement in recent art history. Though earlier shows like “Magiciens de la Terre” (Paris, 1989) had begun to tell a worldwide story of art, the 2002 Documenta was a testament to how widely Mr. Enwezor was enlarging art world horizons and positioning artists of the 20th century avant-garde as just a few actors in a vast ebb and flow of world civilization.

Many of his most acclaimed shows were group exhibitions and biennials. In addition to Documenta, he curated the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale. Yet Mr. Enwezor also curated numerous solo exhibitions, by such figures as the South African photographer David Goldblatt and the American sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney.

He was an educator, too, serving from 2005 to 2009 as dean of the San Francisco Art Institute. And from 2011 until last year he was director of the Haus der Kunst, a leading Munich museum. There he helped organize the monumental “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic” (2016—17).

Self-assured, peripatetic and unfailingly dapper — he favored dark double-breasted suits and the occasional neckerchief, and once made the cover of Men’s Vogue in Italy — Mr. Enwezor never doubted that an African had every right to take the lead at Western art institutions.

“Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex,” he told the Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2013.

That sense was reinforced after he had moved to the United States to study in the 1980s.

“What was apparent was that most Americans I knew and met were actually not worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society,” he said. “And when this became clear, I saw no reason why I could not have an opinion or a point of view.”

Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor was born on Oct. 23, 1963, in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. During the Biafran war of 1967-70, he and his family were forced to move dozens of times, settling at last in the eastern city of Enugu.

Living through war and resettlement, he told The New York Times Magazine in 2002, “I learned what it means to be the Other, even within the rooms of one’s own home.”

He began his university career in Nigeria before moving to the United States in 1982, living in the Bronx and enrolling at what is now New Jersey City University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

After graduating, he moved to downtown Manhattan, where he performed poetry at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, attended gallery openings and danced all night at clubs like the Palladium and the Roxy.

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