Over the past year, the work of the British-born artist Yinka Shonibare has pervaded some of Louisville’s notable art spaces: the walls and television screens at 21C Museum Hotel and an exhibition hall of The Speed Art Museum. His work is embodied in a variety of media — sculpture, painting, film and photography. In one work, which has appeared at both locales, the artist is pictured in a series of large photographs depicting the story of Dorian Gray. But the central character, a dandy, is a black man in Victorian England. (Shonibare’s work is on exhibit at The Speed until Feb. 4.)
This traversing of historical and cultural lines is an aspect common in the work of Shonibare, who grew up in Nigeria. Crossing boundaries is an idea that interests curator Okwui Enwezor, dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, who visits The Speed tomorrow to speak about Shonibare’s work and his experiences as a curator of international proportions.
In 1998, Enwezor, who was born in southern Nigeria, was a New York-based critic and poet when he was named as the artistic director of “Documenta IX,” a massive art show held in Kassel, Germany, every five or six years since 1955. Enweazor, who was the first non-European to hold the post, had built his career and reputation in the art world after coming to the United States in 1983, earning a degree in political science from Jersey City State College and then plunging into writing poetry and art criticism. The latter led him to found The Journal of Contemporary African Art and to curating assemblages of African art. By the late 1990s, he had made his mark through international surveys of contemporary art on several continents. He explored heady themes in exhibitions and conferences, including democracy, urbanization in Africa, and transitional justice and reconciliation.
LEO caught up with Enwezor just days before his trip to Louisville.
LEO: What were the main lessons you learned as director of “Documenta”?
Okwui Enwezor: That contemporary art is certainly part of our global reality, and the fact that contemporary art is as diverse as the places at which they are being made, which are across all terrains and culture, national spaces. The artists have very, very significant things to say about the human condition, and this is really an enduring part of what makes contemporary art such an important part of what I call signifying practices of the human imagination.
LEO: What are some of the prominent questions that you were trying to address with the work that was exhibited?
OE: At first I thought of “Documenta” set up as a series interfacings of cultural spaces and the idea of the platform of “Documenta” was to work at this question of extraterritorial reality, which means really to go beyond a fixed context of the exhibition in Kassel in Germany.
(Editor’s note: In the 18 months prior to the 2002 opening of the central part of “Documenta IX” in Germany, Ensezor mounted four other events or “platforms” on four continents. Each of the four platforms included symposia of scholars, artists and activists who explored art, politics and society around different themes. “Democracy Unrealized” was in Vienna. “Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation” took place in New Delhi. “Creolite and Creolization” was held in St. Lucia. And “Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos” occurred in Lagos. Enwezor designed the event in Kassel as the final platform of “Documenta IX,” which included art work, the tangible form of the ideas cultivated in the preceding platforms. Enwezor edited the four-volume “Documenta 11 Platforms,” which includes books on each of the platforms leading up to the Kassel exhibition.)
The only way to take a look or to take a measure of the layers of complex issues is to make the space as articulate as those concerns
extraterritorial — to go beyond gallery space and begin to formulate those questions on the basis of different types of practices. This means not only just simply works that are taking place within the context of visual arts but taking place in the geopolitical economy, in philosophy. These issues are really diverse. If you look at the five plateaus of “Documenta IX,” these register some of those issues.
was really meant to be a broad-based conversation about the historical present and the level of focus that different practitioners bring to allow us to think about what is going on in different parts of the world.
LEO: As a curator working on “Documenta” and other shows, what is your overarching mission?
OE: I think every exhibition has to be legible, in terms of intellectual and historical concern. And, of course, each exhibition is different so there can really be an overarching statement which one wants to achieve.
For me, making an exhibition is really to begin with questions of historical and intellectual interest to me. I’m really very much about demystification of the idea of art as unapproachable, the idea of contemporary art as obscure, as impenetrable, so I’m always very, very much interested in the elegant exhibition display as a way to move the audience into the more complex statements that the individual artists have incubated in their work.
LEO: How do you see social and political issues shaping contemporary art today?
OE: I think it would be naïve to say that art is not a political and so on. Anytime you conceive of even the idea that somebody has a responsibility to look at what you do, it’s a political statement, so I want to begin from there. The more prosaic notion of politics is not what I’m interested in. I’m really interested in the politics of the encounter and the politics of social aesthetic engagement within any given number of notions about art. I don’t really come with content and really find a form that will fit it.
I begin from the position of the artist. I begin with the concerns of the artist. It’s not like I’m trying to find work perfectly aligns with my own ideological position. I think that there are often times the mistrust of this notion that work that has very, very overt content and itself is necessarily political. I don’t always agree. But I think that institutions have politics — exhibitions have many layers of political engagement. Different conditions — from market conditions to institutional conditions, to historical and entomological conditions — these are all things that have very clear political relationships, even though they may not be spelled out in the work itself. I come to make exhibitions with the recognition that these things are all part of the discourse that viewers and curators and artists and institutions are very much enmeshed in, and we work from there.
LEO: How does Yinka Shonibare’s work fit into the current landscape of contemporary art?
OE: Yinka is what I will call the quintessential contemporary artist. He emerges from a generation in which the field of contemporary art had become completely dispersed. It was no longer just simply fixed, as within the conventional sense of what the contemporary art in the Western oriented art market was in the past.
LEO: Can you explain that?
OE: That is the sense that post colonial
is a very important part of our global reality. I think that Yinka is using that and allowing us to go beyond the modern picture of authenticity that is often ascribed to what artists do. So the device — the fabric and his fictitions and its modulated inventions — provide a conceptual mechanism that most artists use in their work. Yinka works across boundaries of mediums. He’s not really fixed on making sculpture. He’s making forms of ethnographic performance, making paintings — so there’s always subversion of internal cohesion of his own practice in the work.
LEO: What do you mean by subversion of internal cohesion?
OE: The idea that the work signifies purely coherence, artistic narrative. I don’t think this is what Yinka’s work is about. There are various versions of play. There is the dimension of the trickster that he sort of picks up in his work. And there is always this slippage between forms, narratives, social practice — from entertainment to critique, so all these things are all part of what really enlivens one’s engagement.
LEO: Where and when did you first meet him and become familiar with his work?
OE: I don’t’ quite remember. I’ve known Yinka for more than a decade now and worked with him in many different contexts. I’ve had the occasion of commissioning work from him.
LEO: Since becoming familiar with his work, have you seen him move in different directions?
OE: I think he’s grown tremendously. First and foremost I think Yinka’s early beginning stuck me as the work of an artist with this incredible confidence in what his contribution would be. I think he played up the notion very clearly that the nature of his practice (was) going to be inhabiting a number of multiple locations — whether it is the historic location or the metropolitan location, whether it is Europe or Africa. Right from the start he had this incredible sense of culture. He can negotiate all these different sites. And his ambition has grown, obviously, and I think the confidence with which he handles multiple media, from film to photography, to sculpture, to painting, to performance has grown. So, I see somebody who’s really much very in tune with the critical powers of how his work performs in the public context.
LEO: How do you think the way in which the world has moved into globalization has affected contemporary art?
OE: There is certainly a sense that art, the narratives of modern art from which contemporary art is seen to have emerged, has a lot to do with our understanding of colonial modernity. Colonial modernity in a sense was in many ways created around the encounter problem — the problem between the so-called primitive and the modern.
We know that there is a king of dialectical structure under which colonial modernity dealt with the practice of form, the esthetic issues of modern art. Similarly, one can say that this question has become much more acute within the postcolonial context in which contemporary art exists today. That naturally was made possible by globalization.
So, I see the important contribution of the postcolonial condition is the fact that it’s showing us a multifaceted view of contemporary art. This unearths the fact that art is made under many different types of political, social, economic and cultural conditions. I always begin with the notion that everything is interesting in this sense.
My sense of curiosity is that this is all interesting, and then you work by degrees of your own commitment to what the proposition is. I think that this is the vital lesson of globalization, that there are always interesting bodies of work being created across the world and it is the role of curators to be attentive to all those questions and create a space, to make some of those concerns visible for the public.
LEO: How do you compare the public in Europe and the United States when it comes to addressing themes that are colonial or postcolonial in nature? What are the different reactions to these themes between the two audiences?
OE: I would really hate to generalize how audiences on different shores react. Obviously our sense of exhibition practice is part of the heritage of European modernity. That means that perhaps in contexts, such as Europe where art is public and hugely, hugely supported by the state, what is ultimately shown will look very different from
in the United States where private enterprise is the source for what we get to see in public. Now, I don’t know how to judge that. I certainly do feel that in each context, a different part of emphasis would make sense, given the relative independence that curators may have.
But I hesitate to say that in the currant global climate, where ideas travel so fluidly between borders, that there is a sensibility that one can say is specifically European. I find that’s less the case and institutions
collaborate when they share resources. They share research. They share exhibitions. I haven’t really done the sociological research, which I’m completely under-qualified to do. I wouldn’t be able to understand complexity what the differences are, as opposed to giving the differences in funding possibilities that the choices that curators make might be a little bit different.
LEO: When you are in Europe or here, do you consider the differences?
OE: Well, there are things that are possible in different contexts that are not in others. I think I’ve had the good fortune of really working in very supportive contexts — in Europe and in Africa and in the United States. I’ve had the good fortune of having worked in a number of countries.
I think that making exhibitions is always a process of negotiation of different aspects of what it is, of what the exhibition ultimately becomes. That does not mean that you compromise the larger vision of the project, but I think it’s a series of conversations that sometimes need very careful translation in the places in which they are made.
I’ll give you a perfect example. The kind of support I received as the director of Documenta for four years is unimaginable in any other institutional context. That is not to say that it is necessarily better. It means that there is a degree of autonomy that I had that is very rare with an exhibition of that scale, ambition and global reach. So that is something that is little bit different from the American context, if you will. However, I’ve also worked very, very well in the American context where things I’ve done have been very duly supported. So, there are differences, obviously, but by degrees. It’s not necessarily that these are differences that are cultural only. They also involve various personalities.
LEO: Can you name examples in the American context?
OE: (Laughter) One of the things I think I’ve really enjoyed in the United States is the diversity of the population of this country, really. The diversity of people in this country always makes it more challenging to make exhibitions here. In many ways it’s more exciting because the United States — and I’m not claiming that Europe is monocultural — but I think
much more diverse in its historical identities than most European countries. So, when I make an exhibition in the United States, I take this all into consideration.
But again, I’m not just being polite, because I’ve had the very great fortune of working with very good institutions that from the outset were very convinced about the program of my proposal. They have given a huge amount of support to seeing them implemented.
LEO: Is there any one you could mention?
OE:There again, I’ve had this show, my most recent exhibition at The International Center for Photography. “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography” is this sort of exhibition. It was a pleasure to make this exhibition, and now it is on the road. It will open in Mexico City next month, then will travel to the national gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Then it will come back to the United States.
LEO: There again, we’re coming back to transversing borders, something that happens not only with goods and services, but with art —
OE: Art and ideas, precisely. That’s what makes the field of contemporary art so very, very important and interesting today. I think it’s really one of the single most important contributions of contemporary art. It has this ability to travel across all different kinds of boundaries. This is the beginning of the kind of important conversation to be had and what it means to be an artist today and what it means to be an audience for art. What kind of images, what kind of objects, what kinds of forms, what kind of concepts inhabit contemporary art today? I think that if
doesn’t travel, we will know very little about how things are made from different cultural perspectives. I think it’s important to be realistic, but that there are all these border crossings that can contribute to cultural understanding.
Then there is the problem of translation that oftentimes comes with images, ideas that are very local, travel elsewhere. How do you unpack that for it to have meaning? So one has to be very careful that
retains the intensity of these localisms that are part of the making of art and to work assiduously for not having them homogenized and becoming one thing — simply because we’re celebrating globalization and border crossing.
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