What can you say about a Venice Biennale that features a public reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital? Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, who organized the exhibition, has referred to Marx’s work as “our holy book,” which gives some insight into the mind of this curator. Over the last 20 years, he’s been reinventing the very idea of a biennial as a kind of nation-based Olympic event. His Venice show is called “All the World’s Futures.” Speaking with Enwezor, who is currently director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, two months before the Venice exhibition opened, he seemed confident and assured.
“I always start by thinking about the context of the exhibition, its history, and the relationship of that history to what ultimately I will do with the exhibition,” he said. “My question is what would be my contribution to the conversation, because it is a dialogue, a dialogue with precedents and a dialogue with a public that is increasingly global in a way that it wasn’t before.”
Enwezor began contemplating the show with the example of the oldest pavilion in Venice, the Belgian Pavilion, built at the exact moment that Belgium colonized the Congo—where, as he described it, “the population of 20 million people was reduced to 10 million in a vast work camp double the size of western Europe.” From his point of view, that the national pavilions in Venice are symbols of nation states, both past and present, “speak[s] so deeply about the wounds of history, of colonialism, of imperialism, and of the violence of history.”
Enwezor had been strongly critical of Robert Storr’s edition of the Venice show in 2007, most particularly of Storr’s inclusion of an “African Pavilion” within one of the exhibition’s main venues. It featured works solely from the collection of one European collector. Enwezor, along with several others, wrote about his problems with the show in Artforum. Storr replied with an 8,000-word letter to the editor of the magazine accusing his critics of, among other things, defamation. (The back-and-forth continued from there: “Any curator who has worked on a significant project like the Venice Biennale knows that rough treatment at the hands of critics comes with the territory,” Enwezor replied to Storr, in another letter printed in the magazine.)
Enwezor was quick to mention that this dialogue did not influence his thinking at all about his current contribution. Though it has already been noted that Enwezor’s Venice show includes more African artists than ever before, he said that’s simply the way of the world. “We are in a moment that we can say is a very strong challenge to Western exceptionalism,” he said. “We have really entered into an era of post-Westernism.”
Postcolonialism aside, he insisted that visitors looking simply for a pleasurable exhibition will not be disappointed, though he added that people do not come to art just to “ogle,” but also to think. “People will get out of it what they want,” he said. “The exhibition has many different layers—visual, aural, physical—sometimes formally beautiful, sometimes dissonant rather than simply mannered.”
When asked if being the first African curator at Venice has influenced his choices, he said, “Not at all,” and claimed, “my participation is beyond making history.” Still, others might leap to conclusions about Enwezor’s outlook or approach based on this fact. “That is not my problem,” he said.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 46 under the title “His Future Looks Bright.”