He’s organized exhibitions from Johannesburg to New York. Now, Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, the new director of Munich’s historic Haus der Kunst, is taking Germany by storm.
MUNICH -- You will not find a smarter or better connected museum head anywhere on the planet. And certainly not one with a more polished command of protocol. That is, if you believe what Munich's in-crowd has been saying these past couple of months -- although some do wonder aloud why a person with such global experience would accept a job in a provincial capital. Now, however, "it has become a reality," as Bavaria's Minister of Science Wolfgang Heubisch put it a bit awkwardly, but with great pride, when on Thursday he officially introduced Okwui Enwezor as the new director of the Haus der Kunst.
Enwezor, who was born in 1963 in Kalaba, Nigeria, looks a little lost as he enters the huge room in the monumental building that dates back to the National Socialist era. There are surely less daunting tasks than taking the helm of an art gallery that – while it enjoys an international reputation – doesn't have its own collection but does have a difficult history. Enwezor, who has signed a five-year contract, calls it a "challenge," an "exciting perspective." He intends to create a separate space on the ground floor where visitors can learn about the history of the gallery. However, he says he does not want to focus too much on the National Socialist architecture – "you can't put a building on trial," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He added that as far as he is concerned, his work isn't about nationalities but ideas. Enwezor's first show – which also opened this Thursday – is devoted to U.S. painter Ellsworth Kelly, whose black and white works explore form and surface. Enwezor calls Kelly's art "noble – in the best sense of that word."
The chatting classes were right about Enwezor's good manners, which are one of the main reasons he is so likeable. The new director laughs often and loud, shakes hands, works the room thanking everyone effusively. He expresses thanks to Bavaria for having given him the job. He also thanks the museum staff and his predecessor, whose fantastic work has made his own job easier – but also harder for having such a standard to live up to. He says he doesn't intend to follow in the footsteps of the former director, Chris Dercon. Instead he will respectfully forge his own path alongside the one that Dercon traced. "Thank you so much," he keeps repeating in his aristocratic-sounding English, apparently utterly unperturbed by all the cameras.
Enwezor moved to New York from Nigeria in 1983, and studied political science at Jersey City State College before becoming an art critic, writer, poet and curator. In 2002, he was the artistic director of the prestigious Documenta contemporary art event that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Five years earlier he had been artistic director of the second Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa.
Enwezor has also curated the Biennale of Contemporary Art of Seville, in Spain, and "Meeting Points 6" – which according to its website is "the sixth edition of the international multidisciplinary event that comprises visual arts, film, theater, dance, music, and performance and takes place across eight historic cities in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe over a one-year period between April 2011 and March 2012."
Science Minister Heubisch praised Enwezor's excellent professional reputation and repeats that he is "proud that we were able to get you to come to Munich." They make a strange pair – the cosmopolitan Enwezor in his black suit, who according to the London-based Art Review is one of the 100 most powerful people in the art world, and the Free Democratic Party politician who praises Enwezor's German but then murmurs to him in English: "I hope it's okay for you if I switch to German or Bavarian now."
No problems with that, and Enwezor laughs politely as if he understood every word. He praises Munich‘s "lightness' and "self-awareness," the "highly educated German public," the city's fine arts tradition – all music to local ears.
However, with regard to the specifics of his plans for the gallery Enwezor is not giving too much away at his first public appearance. Modestly, he says he wants to immerse himself in the context, to understand and reflect, before he comes up with plans.
However, Münchners got a sampling of his tastes shortly before the 2002 Documenta, when he curated an exhibit at Villa Stuck that included African record covers. He says that, yes, he wants to open Haus der Kunst up to different things – such as jazz, for example. But now he has to move on, he has a lot of other interviews to do. "A new era is beginning," says a woman standing nearby as she watches him stride away.
Read the original article in German
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