Okwui Enwezor, who inarguably organized some of the most important exhibitions of the past century, never expected that he would play a significant role in art history. “I never really set out to be a curator,” Enwezor told the New York Times in 2002. Having studied political science as an undergraduate, the Nigerian-born curator became an art-world fixture after forming Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art with Salah M. Hassan, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and Olu Oguibe in 1994. That publication, which remains massively influential, put Enwezor on the fast track, allowing him to organize shows for major institutions.
A series of touted biennials and survey shows followed in the years to come. Enwezor’s greatest intervention with these exhibitions was to view art history as global, showing that artists based in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were making just as significant contributions as ones in the U.S. and Europe. These shows also envisioned the field of art history as something flexible and, by its very nature, incomplete, and Enwezor—a passionate, ambitious curator with a no-nonsense sensibility—worked tirelessly to reshape it over and over again. Ultimately, he succeeded in making the discipline more inclusive.
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Enwezor died in 2019, and his loss is still being mourned in the art world. In 2021, Marian Goodman Gallery, Independent Curators International, and artist Steve McQueen joined forces to create an initiative meant to support early- and mid-career BIPOC curators. Around the same time, the New Museum in New York opened one of the final shows organized by Enwezor, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” an exhibition focused on “Black grief and white grievance,” according to its description. (Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Nash helped realized the show after Enwezor’s death.) Also in 2021, Nka will devote a special issue to Enwezor, and in 2022, under the aegis of Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates will organize an edition curated with Enwezor’s proposed theme as its basis.
With the art world continuing to consider Enwezor’s manifold accomplishments, below is a look back at the curator’s 10 most important exhibitions.