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Okwui Enwezor, curator who remapped art world, dies at 55

Okwui Enwezor prepared his show “The Short Century” in New York in 2002.
Okwui Enwezor prepared his show “The Short Century” in New York in 2002. (Edward Keating/New York Times)

NEW YORK — Okwui Enwezor, an influential Nigerian curator whose large-scale exhibitions displaced European and US art from its central position as he forged a new approach to art for a global age, died 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 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. It 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.

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In addition to Documenta, he curated the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale. Mr. Enwezor also curated numerous solo exhibitions, by such figures as South African photographer David Goldblatt and US 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, 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 Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2013.

Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor was born 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.

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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.

Yet the young Mr. Enwezor was “not overly awed or impressed by what the art world was throwing up,” he recalled this year in a New Museum show catalog. African artists, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, had almost no exposure.

He decided to fill the gap by starting Nka, a magazine of contemporary African art, which he co-founded with Okeke-Agulu, scholar Salah M. Hassan, and scholar and artist Olu Oguibe. Its first issue came out in 1994.

Nka became a touchstone in debates about art and postcolonialism, and it led the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to invite him to be co-curator of an exhibition of African photography. The show, “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” (1996), was one of the first museum exhibitions to present imagery from Africa by Africans themselves, beyond the stereotypes of Western ethnography.

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It gave dozens of African artists, like acclaimed Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, their first US exposure. “In/Sight” also insisted on an understanding of Africa that stretched past the black experience, by including Arab artists, white photographers from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and African artists of Asian descent.

The same pluralist approach framed Mr. Enwezor’s show “The Short Century,” at the Villa Stuck in Munich in 2001, and later at MoMA PS1 in New York. Roberta Smith of the Times called it “one of those rare occasions when the usually hyperbolic term ‘landmark exhibition’ is not an overstatement.”

In 1998 Mr. Enwezor was named artistic director of the 11th edition of Documenta, one of the world’s best-attended art shows, with a budget that year of more than $20 million.

Lucid, rarefied and uncompromisingly serious, Documenta 11 stomped on the Western-centric “internationalism,” and replaced it with a historically engaged view of the whole, roiling planet, where artists and images were in constant motion.