Art and Design

Enwezor turns a wanderer's eye to the bureaucracy of everyday apartheid

Bongani Madondo

Okwui Enwezor: More about the man behind the 'Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life'

Archiving Africa: Curator,Okwui Enwezor. (Andreas Gerbert)

Almost two decades after he first arrived, worked in, and ruffled some huge feathers in the South African art world, Nigerian-born curator,Okwui Enwezor is back down south.

He's the man behind Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, arguably the most exhaustive photography-anchored visual narrative of its kind. 

Says Enwezor: "As an enquirer and curator, I'm particularly interested in the archive and of course in issues of representation."

A regular in such influential platforms as the Art Review's influential Power 100 List, Enwezor is, once more, on his way south – 18 years after his first visit to Johannesburg as the artistic director of the second Johannesburg Biennale, in the aftermath of the fall of apartheid.

The 1990s were a heady brew of lingering anger, audacious belief in new possibilities and deconstruction of established canons. 

In short: South Africa was a country struggling, groping, crying and bullishly trying to imagine itself anew. It is safe then, to imagine that's been the lasting impression imprinted on Enwezor's soul and headspace.

This being the 20th anniversary of South Africa's political freedom, and also coinciding with the fifth national elections, the timing couldn't have been more apt. It feels as though African cosmology has spoken. The stars have aligned and this is the year for profound reflection. It is also the year that portends our arrival at the final phase of the inevitable destruction of our so-called "miracle".

Conceptually, Rise and Fall of Apartheid is a mammoth task that would have burnt even the most connected, or ambitious. 

"Rise and Fall of Apartheid is part of a trilogy of the archive of African photography I have been working on over the years. Rise was actually the first I had planned of this series. The others are Snap Judgments, which sought to critique Afro-pessimism. The next is Sun in Their Eyes: Photography and the Invention of Africa (1839 – 1939), and charts the first 100 years of photography in Africa."

Enwezor is a polymath, critic, poet, curator, publisher, wayfarer, institution director and theorist, and can look back and pat himself on the back. He almost does exactly that in a lengthy interview in the Africa special edition of Under the Influence magazine. 

"I have invested over 25 years of my life, research, writing and doing this …" the punch line is hanging for all to recite "… so I know what I am doing."

In the past 20 years Enwezor has made, at least in the intellectual space, a bold bid at talking about Africa and African art in radically new terms. He uses the established academic lexicon to codify, decode, appreciate and build subversive scholarship, through which to reframe and elevate the discourse around African art. 

Enwezor founded Nka: Journal for Contemporary African Art, through which he led a bunch of audacious young Africans from the margins to the epicentre of modern art and academy. 

Enwezor and his band of enlightenment seekers soon knocked down some walls, and if they did not actually collect the baton from the likes of the groundbreaking theorists such as Robert Farris Thompson, they made their presence felt in the mainstream visual arts academy. 

By expanding, thus altering the frame and language of looking and talking about contemporary African art, Enwezor and his contributors sparked new ways of feeling, hearing, thinking of and seeing the continent. 

Throughout his work, particularly photography, such as In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present and Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography, Enwezor was part of the movement that the visual arts philosopher John Berger often refers to as "ways of seeing". 

What this loose yet inspired core  of "New Afrikanist" seers "saw" was the infinite possibilities of thinking Africa anew. Although it was less a vanguard than a seismic reflection of the times, this movement of "seers" included the likes of Malian theorist and filmmaker Manthia Diawara, Nigerian art critic Chika Okeke, and Ethiopian filmmaker and teacher Haile Gerima among the New Afrikan massive sculpting a neo-Negri(arty)tude in the New World.

They bombed the Bastille, and in the wake dreamt up an engaged and engaging Afro Zeitgeist: exploring new ways of thinking and narrating African arts. It is that ethic and focus, this newly appointed artistic director of Venice Biennale brings to Rise and Fall. – Bongani Madondo

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