OKWUI ENWEZOR with David Carrier & Joachim Pissarro
Part I: New York
When Joachim Pissarro and I began to organize our interviews with major museum directors—men or women who had decisively changed their institutions—from the very start we planned to talk with directors both in this country and internationally. Thus we interviewed not only Jeffrey Deitch, who had directed MOCA in LA; Philippe de Montebello of the Metropolitan; Alanna Heiss, and then Glenn Lowry, from MoMA; Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum; and Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem; but also Sir Norman Rosenthal from the Royal Academy, London; and Mikhail Piotrovsky at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In this, the eighth of our interviews, we talk with Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor who, after a distinguished early career as curator in the United States, organized exhibitions in Europe, where now he is director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich. I mention this sequence of interviews because our more recent discussions often build upon the earlier accounts, both in terms of our questions and also, sometimes, the responses of our subjects. In his interview, for example, Enwezor comments on our discussion with Philippe de Montebello.
Several special features of this interview should be noted. It was conducted in two cities, employing quite different questions. First, in New York, the discussion focused on Enwezor’s work with American museums, mostly dealing with African or African-American themes. At one point, his friend, Chika Okeke-Agulu, the Princeton art historian who happened to be present, joined in the discussion. A last minute change of schedule made it impossible for Joachim Pissarro to attend, but here, as earlier, his detailed suggestions played a decisive role in the discussion. It happened soon afterwards that I went to Germany and had a chance to spend several days looking at Enwezor’s impressive exhibition, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 (October 14, 2016 – March 26, 2017) at Haus der Kunst. Here I gained a considerably augmented perspective on his thinking, and it then seemed imperative to do a second interview, focused on that exhibition. If the resulting discussion is longer than our earlier interviews, it is because more ground had to be covered in two stages.
One useful way, I think, to understand Enwezor’s career, both in America and in Germany, is to consider his role in revising the canons of present day art history. When he began curating in the 1990s, hardly any contemporary African art was found in most survey exhibitions. His pioneering concern with African photography has played a major role in changing that situation. At this time, critics and art historians were also interested in devoting more attention to recent African art. As you will read, I was interested in understanding how his thinking was influenced by theorizing and the extent to which, as a curator, he works in an empirical way. Here our discussion dealt with highly challenging issues of cultural relativism. I was interested, also, to ask Enwezor whether it still was possible—or desirable—to have an overview on contemporary art. We talked, also, about the history and prospects for encyclopedic museums. In a discussion which builds on our previous interview with Thelma Golden, we talked about identity politics and the often complex relationships between African art coming out of Africa and art made by Africans residing in other continents, including America.
Then, in ways that I did not earlier anticipate, our discussion in Munich, which focused upon the prospects for a world art history, extended this account to consider art from all cultures. But since each visual culture is distinct, generalizing needs to be done with caution, which is to say that as our art world expands, we must become ever more aware of differences. This is a challenging and exciting situation—surely a reason to feel optimistic.
David Carrier (Rail): I’ve been reading a number of your essays in the past few weeks. There are so many unfamiliar names, so many artists, so many schools of art—it’s a massive reworking of the tradition of modernism. What is all this going to look like in fifty years? How is the history of the late 20th century going to look?
Okwui Enwezor: It is safe to say that the picture already looks very different when we begin to think about modernism as a series of propositions that have specific trajectories and are culturally located. I’ve seen it unfold over the past twenty years and it is now insistently coming to the fore, and beginning to animate the shape of debates: modernism seen in relation to the West’s entanglement with the rest of the world. This is an epistemological shift that we will need to begin thinking of modernism in terms of its specificity rather than universality. I believe some museums are trying to respond to these emerging narratives, new names, contexts of production. How far it will go to reorient our common understanding of modernist production remains to be seen.
Rail: Think of how recently MoMA rehung their gallery of the 1960s, basically still Western but very different from what MoMA had years ago.
Enwezor: I’ve seen that exhibition, and I take it as an exhibition constructed wholly out of the collection. That enables us to look at the intellectual subjectivity of the institution—what it was partial to, what was important for MoMA at specific times as its collection developed, along with the powerful history of modern art that is connected to the museum. So if we examine the exhibition you just mentioned, what needs to be understood within the context of the ten years from 1960 to 1969 which the exhibition covers, is how modernism changed alongside the social and cultural upheavals that were rescripting the identity of the US at this time. This is both a political and historical question. No institution is infallible and to pretend that this niche narrative gives us a picture of art at that time is naïve. Even on a basic chronological line there’s no way that that kind of understanding of history is sustainable—it’s specific to MoMA’s collection, not the history of the 1960s.
Rail: I started writing art criticism in 1980 and I remember Michael Fried’s essay (“Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella”) for the show he did in 1962 at the Fogg, at Harvard University, in which he proclaimed that all the significant painting was done by this small group of men. It’s not that he had tested this view, it was simply what he thought. It’s astonishing.
Enwezor: The point is—at the time Fried did the show he was quite young—could you imagine a young critic of Michael Fried’s age, somewhere in Nigeria, making such a proclamation? And with such confidence? It comes with a certain kind of cultural assumption—and that’s not to say that Fried is necessarily wrong or right. One could make such a declaration when one assumes a certain type of historical position in the world. It’s a belief, but not a fact.
Rail: To shift the question a little bit, what is the relation between your practical work as a curator and the academic commentary?
Enwezor: I think it becomes a task for curators like myself and art historians like Chika [Okeke-Agulu] not to offer a counter-argument, but to extend the proposition to other models that could be looked at. Then maybe the surveys we’ve seen in the past fifty, seventy years will really need to be re-thought, especially how the surveys are constructed. When I make exhibitions, I always begin from the point of the view of what I can learn that’s new and will improve the arguments I want to set forth in an exhibition, rather than only trying to re-inscribe that which I’ve already mastered. That for me is the question we always have to be attentive to.
We become overly concerned with the question of inclusion, but inclusion doesn’t always resolve the issue of how to incorporate different bodies of artistic production within an already deeply sedimented history we see in Western museums. Does a museum have the will, resources and long-term commitment to take on challenges in ways that are concise and meaningful to the public?
Rail: The politics is always tricky in regards to how the collecting is related to colonialism—
Enwezor: And to military ventures and the history of archaeological excavations, etc. I must confess I’m always pleased when I step in a museum and see attempts at these kinds of connections. That said, the question of cultural patrimony is entirely different. The history of museum collecting in the West, from the Louvre to the British Museum, is very problematic. But I think the idea of objects talking across cultural contexts is an interesting one. The recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on the Kongo, was to me a formidable example, because it was constructed around the complex axis of change and innovation. I don’t know if you’ve seen that show, but Alissa LaGamma’s proposition was a rigorous curatorial tour de force in which emphasis was placed on a single location across this historical span of time in Africa. Immediately it was possible to perceive the incredible cultural and artistic achievements taking place in Africa before the deracination of colonialism took hold. That’s incomparable to anything you might know about Africa. Similar exhibitions on Benin, Ife, Igbo-Ukwu, and those of the Yoruba canon (all areas of study in Nigeria alone) have been done with depth. What that tells us is that it is possible to open up to art from any other part of the world, even though it may be very specific. We need to see more of that kind of scholarship in museums dealing with modern and contemporary art. I think that’s one of the great things about the Kongo exhibition, to look at the context and conditions of production in the Kongo from the late 15th century all the way to the end of the 19th century. That’s not something we regularly do when we think about African art.
Rail: When reading your catalogue essays, you refer to various theoretical writings but your sense of this is rather empirical—you want to gather objects and see how to think about them, without being driven by theory.
Enwezor: It’s always important to begin with the life of the objects, from the thinking of the artists. That’s already interpretative—what to do with the objects, how to stage them for the public. That has always been my fundamental interest when I make exhibitions. The works have to speak for themselves, even though people tend to think politics comes first in my exhibitions, before the art.
Rail: Questions about aesthetic value or quality have to be decided empirically.
Enwezor: You make choices, decisions, judgments—none of the things we do anywhere are devoid of judgments.
Rail: Then it’s a question, which I’ll introduce by describing my experience in China. It struck me when I looked at art in China, artists want to be recognizably Chinese and on the other hand, they want to be recognizably contemporary. There’s a tension there. You think that’s a general issue for African artists?
Enwezor: I’m not so sure. I think Hans Belting, if I quote him correctly, says that for non-Western artists, the challenge is to become post-ethnic, while Western artists aspire to be post-historical. But I’m not sure that these terms easily resolve the dilemma that artists face within and outside their own historical canons. The idea of the Western artist as already universal, and the non-Western artist as not universal is part and parcel of that dilemma. We have to question these categories and binaries because they don’t quite get to the issue of access to publics that the artists must negotiate before they become post-ethnic and post-historical. How do you transport those ideas into the museum? What are the strategies artists bring when they make the work? In postcolonial Congo, I understand that artists have two categories of work: the type of art that appeals to Westerners’ idea of African art and the type of art they make for themselves, the locals. The question is when a Chinese or African artist makes work that appeals to the idea that the West already has of what Chinese or African art has to be, how do we determine which work to look at? There’s an expectation that certain patrons want African art to be informed by their ideas about it, they have to have an “Africanness” to it, and the artists have to deliver what seems most African to the patron who’s going to buy it.
Now we’re in a completely different arena, the arena of the contemporary. It’s no longer where the artists are from, but where they’re showing—commercial galleries, fairs, biennials, museums, and so on. How do we reconcile the relationship between non-Western contemporary artists and Western contemporary artists? I’m caught in Hans Belting’s schema, and I believe Belting’s distinction is well-meaning, but ultimately unsatisfactory.
Rail: When you talk about African American art as opposed to African art, it’s interesting that the same question reappears. No one says we want Richard Prince to show his whiteness. The black man is an exception.
Enwezor: Precisely. But there is also the reverse. If you look at the cover of James Clifford’s book The Predicament of Culture, there is that figure of whiteness as other, which does exist in representation. It depends from which point of view you are looking. In East Africa, in South Africa, the figure of whiteness also has a name (Muzungu) and is recognized as it appears. I hardly know of an African artist whose central preoccupation is race, or color. So there is already a very clear tension between representation and racial identity. That is why it is important not to collapse the two (African and African American identities), because the cultural and historical experiences are very different; the investments the artists are making within that field of identity are completely different.
Rail: It seems that there is a very general issue of how do you understand what’s exotic to you, in an indexical way, but I understand on a case-by-case basis, each case is different. I think of those cases when the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 – 1766) goes to Beijing and paints shadows, which don’t belong to the Chinese tradition. So they try to understand what it means when you show a woman and you also show a shadow across her face—it doesn’t fit their idea of aesthetic. So you can’t escape the issues of history and power, they’re always in the background.
Enwezor: Well you can’t, they are always there. And there are very clear reasons why. Especially when we are dealing with very fundamental questions about civilization, where there is already a scaffold that is constructed in terms of the hierarchies of civilization. Power is always there—who has access to it, who does what with it? We cannot take for granted that museums remain very important sites of judgment; the power of the Western idea of beauty and of aesthetic accomplishment has already been written.
Rail: Maybe I could press this discussion in another way—in your essay on Steve McQueen, you said at one point, “he has not abandoned the formal factors that shaped his film installations.” Here is someone that has made the transition from fine arts to a broader culture—can you say something about those different audiences? Are the issues the same in moving from an elite museum culture to mass media to film to music and such, or are the issues different in different fields?
Enwezor: I think the issues are very different. If you take McQueen’s very first feature film Hunger (2008), it really has nothing to do with his racial identity and everything to do with his identity as a British person, looking at Northern Ireland, Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army and the violence accompanying Northern Irish self-determination. So Steve took a granular look at that complex story and focusing it on the resistance and self-sacrifice of one figure. His second film, Shame (2011), is more libidinal, which has to do with certain types of sexual pathologies similarly has no obvious location. Then comes 12 Years a Slave (2013), and because McQueen is black the treatment of the subject matter, the subject of slavery, in itself became very complicated. Because McQueen was not an American, the way that African Americans received McQueen’s attempt to render this subject within the United States became complicated, suddenly he was no longer black, but British. Add to that the fact that his principal actors were of Nigerian and Kenyan origin, but still “black”, the narrative became surreal, which made him appear like an interloper into an African American story. It was very interesting to follow the responses. So one has to look at the reception of McQueen’s work and his interest first and foremost from a purely cinematic angle.
Steve is fundamentally a British artist. With all that that entails: the relationship of Britain to the Caribbean, to slavery, to the plantation economy, to migration, and all of that is delicately woven into the film. Many of these issues figure into Steve’s work in very subtle ways but others are obvious in many ways, there are tropes that are borrowed in order to be interrogated in very systematic ways, such as in the visual precision of his films.
Rail: In your 1996 Guggenheim exhibition In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present you talk about the desire to avoid the clichés about Africa and photography, and I wonder: is it possible to generalize a political vision about what museum art can accomplish? I understand that museum clichés are reductive and have all kinds of political problems but how far can a museum push this deconstruction of those clichés?
Enwezor: I think the exhibition happened in the wake of many attempts to deconstruct these cultural clichés—part of the broader heritage of postmodernism—of the categories civilized and the primitive, the self and the other, the universal and the particular and all of that. First, that show was fundamentally about photography. Second, it was about the way African photographers worked with that material. And thirdly, to show a more complex cultural geography of Africa that is not the cliché of sub-Saharan, that is to say, black people. There is a kind of civilizational distinction that people want to make in Africa between sub-Saharan and the rest of the continent North of the Sahara. It was an exhibition that had artists of European descent who were Africans, Arab descent who were African, artists of mixed-race, from Asia, and so on. In a sense when we talk about Africa we have to try to inhabit all these complexities and what they mean; when you inhabit the complexities you begin to chip away and undo the clichés. That’s one point. The second interest of this exhibition was to do away with the ethnographic. That is not to say that the ethnographic imagination doesn’t have a richness to it—I would not entirely dismiss it—but nevertheless, I think, just like the African artists who gave the Western patrons work that looks most like their expectation of what Africa is supposed to be, [the work] is to chip away at that expectation that other people have of what most people’s expectation of Africa ought to be. When you look at that exhibition, it was the first time that Seydou Keïta, as a photographer, was shown in any cultural institution in the United States as himself. His work had been shown before, by Susan Vogel in Africa Explores (1991), but he was not the author; the photographs were shown as by an anonymous photographer. So here the question of authorship was very important. What were African photographers interested in? What were the kind of images that were constructed apart from the images of Africa that we had become habituated to? This was really the fundamental issue that the exhibition wanted to raise. There was a follow-up exhibition I did ten years later called Snap Judgments (2006), in which I raise the question that the fundamental interest in those cliché images of Africa had to do with the idea of Afro-pessimism. Afro-pessimism begins from the perspective of a certain Africa as a negative. This idea of the negativity of Africa has to be first understood before one can look beyond it. To interrogate that sense of negativity, of the negation of Africa, and to ask ourselves: when an African artist goes out to make work with a camera, what do they produce? That was the fundamental set of ideas that we wanted to confront in the exhibitions.
But to your question about whether museums can do that political work of educating our eye—I think yes, museums can and, in fact, they have to. Museums have to challenge those stereotypes, but that is not to merely show that which is positive, I’m not interested in the positive and happy view of Africa. That in itself would be false. But I think what has already occurred through several series of exhibitions— mine among others, such as Thelma Golden’s Black Male (1994 – 95)—is awareness that art and exhibitions have the power to inscribe another regime of vision in ways the public can be included.
Rail: Included in the sense that they can be asked to actively respond?
Enwezor: Precisely. I think this is the task of museums to question some of those ideas. Exhibitions and museums are capable and they have done so—that is why we are having this discussion. A lot of that work has been done over the last few decades and continues to be done. I think the more museums take on the role of staging some of these encounters, the more we have available, at our disposal, new techniques of apprehending different approaches to art.
Rail: Aesthetic experience involves an active questioning, in a critical capacity. It is not passive.
Rail: This comes back to a point we talked about earlier: the fundamental tension between recognizing someone’s culture, where they come from, and at the same time recognizing vast differences. No one would say “that’s a typical German painting,” because all of these categories require a great multiplicity.
Enwezor: When I began my work, the one question I was confronted with all the time by people was “don’t you think it’s too limiting to be focused only on contemporary African art?”
This for me was a very interesting and intriguing question, because I thought “here we have people who have made entire careers based on one artist;” how many Warhol monographs have been written—and there are still so many things to discover about this single artist? So I found that very intriguing because I have always looked at contemporary African art, not as a monolithic block of similarities but as a multiplicity. I went into this particular field precisely to understand that multiplicity and how to grapple with that multiplicity—how to make a coherent intellectual argument about the necessity of developing something called contemporary African art. That means that it is both bounded and unbounded. Bounded within the terrain that we consider African but unbounded because the journeys that African artists have made across the world, as many individuals with many interests.
So when one gets into contemporary African art one can dig even deeper and study South African art—the differences between artists in Cape Town and Johannesburg and Durban, the rural-based artists and urban-based artists—that’s already a very big category. An exhibition of that kind was made by Ricky Burnett in 1985, which pre-dated the exhibition Magiciens de la terre by several years. It was called Tributaries and it was an attempt to look at the differences between urban-based artist and non-urban-based black artists in South Africa. Then you can really look at the differences between northern, Nigerian-based artists and the ones who are based in the West—there is still a broader field called contemporary Nigerian art. Or you can look at Senegal, you can look at the Congo.
Rail: This is fascinating. One of the discoveries I made when I moved from philosophy into art history is this idea that art history is organized by periods, so people spend their life doing Northern 17th century Baroque and nothing else. And so Poussin isn’t on their map, Rembrandt is. But, it is true, when you get outside of the West there is this idea—when small departments hire someone they say “well, she can do Chinese and a bit of Indian too, and a bit of Islamic”—you think non-Western is this big bucket. [Laughter.]
Enwezor: Exactly and you can throw everything into it. But what’s beginning to obviously happen, though the shift is yet to be accelerated, is that the disciplinary focus of different scholars is now beginning to receive the attention that is necessary in order to expand the terrain of the so-called non-Western art context. I must say though that I am not necessarily opposed to the category non-Western. We have to get to the point where the non-Western attains the level that we are calling the Western canon—that there is something of enormous philosophical, art historical, cultural, political and social significance that requires studying in depth and with the same level of clarity and certitude that is given to the study of very narrow areas of the Western canon.
Rail: I was thinking, when you were speaking, of the reversal—well there’s Chinese art and non-Chinese, but that sounds strange, doesn’t it? You say “everything else is non-Chinese?” [Laughter.]
Enwezor: Exactly. That is the challenge of the categories that we have inherited. We have the categories in which there is the Western and there is the non-Western, which is very tricky because how does one attain the position of a non-being?
Black British artists and black American artists, we are all collapsed into this category “non” and that is the challenge: how to escape that category of the “non.”
Rail: Maybe this is pushing it too far, but what I am thinking about, which goes far beyond the questions that I prepared, is the liberating and utopian political dimension of what you are saying. Is that fair? You are really talking about this cultural understanding as a complicated task. It’s basically political because it involves trying to understand other places which aren’t yours.
Enwezor: Yes. It is political on a number of levels. It is political on the level of the politics of representation on the one hand, and the politics of the curatorial choices that we make, and the politics of nomination. It is political also in terms of the deeply ingrained political cultures of institutions. And so it’s political in the sense that I make no secret of the fact that my experience of contemporary art is truly global and broad and that I’m not as interested in the kinds of epistemological constraints that often times institutions bring to the reception of some of these ideas. I always say I’ve never made a single exhibition about identity, ever. But I’ve made exhibitions in which identity is deeply located within the exhibitions—and identity is a political question so we have to deal with it and to locate the habits of looking, of nomination, of judgment, of exclusion, and all of that inside our work in a transparent fashion. If there is anything that my work points to, it is to try to articulate the political possibility within institutional pressure points, not necessarily within the artistic question.
Rail: Those political possibilities appear in the very nature of an exhibition.
Enwezor: They appear in the very nature of the exhibition, the very nature of the resources that flow towards the exhibition, the very nature of how one takes possession of public space—in terms of the civic nature of public space—and with very deep respect that the civic imagination, if I will call it that, makes up the body that we call the public. All of these things are very clearly aligned within what I try to achieve in my work. You can call that political, yes. I do not begin with the idea that politics is a dirty word within what I do. But whether that is utopian or not—I would like to say that it is not utopian because I am fundamentally anti-utopian. I believe that utopia is the end of politics.
Rail: Okay, I see, in a Marxist way?
Rail: The “end of History.” But utopian—I was thinking in the sense that what your exhibitions involve, or suppose, or hope for, is a deep sense that there can be understanding of these objects. That they’re not opaque, or alien, or ultimately exotic, wherever you’re coming from, but that there are things that one can understand and comprehend in different ways.
Enwezor: Absolutely. The same way that the standard history lesson for the school- age child in colonial Senegal began with: our ancestors, the Gauls. [Laughter.] One could really imagine beginning a history lesson in France—our ancestors, the warlords. I think that it is comprehensible, maybe not immediately, and there are different levels of comprehension of a work of art: one might be perplexed, one might be disturbed, one might be ambivalent. But what is very constant is the act of engagement and of course then one’s comprehension gets better through familiarization, becoming a little bit more acculturated to the world of the objects or the images and so on. There is nothing that says that the picture of the dead Christ is immediately perceptible or comprehensible to someone who has no understanding or knowledge of Christianity. They will understand that there is something terrible going on in the body of that person, but the broader narrative of Christianity might not be immediately comprehensible until one digs into that. And I believe that what is called traditional African art might likewise prove incomprehensible to someone who might not know anything about Africa. It takes time. That is one disagreement I have with Philippe de Montebello in your interview [in the May 2014 issue], because he challenged Norman Rosenthal about the Africa: The Art of a Continent at the Royal Academy in 1995, which I saw. He challenged it by asking, “what exactly is the relationship between ancient Egyptian and [South] African art? It is because they are on the same continent.” What exactly is the relationship between German primitives and ancient Greek sculptors—they are on the same continent. I think there needs to be a much more open-minded understanding that Africa, despite Hegel’s assertion, is not a closed entity, it is not a “land of childhood,” as he claimed. You cannot look at Egypt without looking at Africa because the Egyptian kingdoms were fundamentally African, there were transactions that went beyond geographic borders. I was quite surprised by that observation by Montebello.
Rail: I understand. I’m thinking that question of understanding a culture can be historicized. Albrecht Dürer sees the work brought from the new Americas, and he thinks it’s fascinating, he’s stunned by the worksmanship, but in the German culture at that time there’s no place to study it as art, they’re just wondrous objects and off they go. Whereas what I take what the museum presupposes and what your exhibitions presuppose is that we’re going to focus on these objects more, we’re going to study them.
Enwezor: I remember the opening line in Gombrich’s A Story of Art, “There really is not such thing as Art. There are only artists.” [Laughter.] And this is very important, especially when we think of the category of African art, because it had always been assigned to a group, not to a maker. So there is the Art and there are the artists, the makers. [There is] the question of the individual imagination that invents whatever on behalf of a community, a cult, a patron, whoever does the commissioning of the work and these culturally situated ways of experiencing art for me are very important, but it also has to reflect the will and identity of the individual, who has created these objects. There is a code within their making that they want the people who encounter the works to understand, although they may conceal it.
Part II: Munich
Rail: An encyclopedic modernism—Okwui, when I look at your show here, how would that be possible? It would take so many galleries, so many spaces.
Enwezor: Maybe that’s what it appears to be. I think the spaces for our exhibition Postwar are obviously expansive, over 30,000 square feet, yet given its ambition, not nearly enough. But a museum collection need not function the same way that an exhibition functions. So when I speak of the notion of encyclopedic modernism, I am trying to understand, through the work a number of institutions over the last decade and a half have embarked on to expand, not only the collection of modern art in those institutions, but to incorporate and to publish ideas of what one would call “modernism of the elsewhere” or what some other people call “other modernisms.” It seems to me that in reality what we are facing now, looking through the exhibition of Postwar, is that the notion of a global modernism itself is almost unattainable. By that I mean, that a properly functioning museum collection attempting an account of global modernism is nearly impossible. MoMA, the Tate Modern, and perhaps Centre Pompidou have been at the forefront of these historical exercises. But they are not trying to really do global modernism, but instead what I would call encyclopedic modernism. There is a core idea of modernism, their sense of canonical modernism at the center and between are the recent insertions, the recent gatherings of practices of modernism from elsewhere. This lateral expansion seems to evoke more of an idea of encyclopedia of modernism than a coherent global story.
Rail: I was thinking of one model. A couple of years ago MoMA did this origins of abstraction show, and they had that big chart on the wall of all those connections, so that was a momentary encyclopedia.
Enwezor: Precisely. Those kinds of shows, I would argue, are exhibitions that are institutionally reinforcing ideas. They go to the origins of the thought around the museum and they can demonstrate in an expansive way through the collection the extent to which the story of origin itself has other channels, but channels that are to be understood as fundamentally related. And I think that institutions like MoMA can do that very well because MoMA has a formidable collection. But what I have in mind about encyclopedic modernism is how to come to grips with the impossibility of actually constructing a modernism that is global.
Rail: Right, because it is too complicated. There are maybe too many connections.
Enwezor: Simply because at the moment the Tate and MoMA, and the Pompidou are busy trying to kind of selectively expand their collection, other models are appearing that are much more focused and concentrated on regions. In Doha there is Mathaf, which focuses on modernism in the Arab world, and there is M+ in Hong Kong, which currently is focusing on constructing a modern/contemporary art museum for Asia. There is, of course, an attempt being made in South Africa by a private collection (and I am going to be very cautious about this one) that cites the Museum of Contemporary African Art to constitute a museum of the continent. These models are now in direct competition for the same ideas and products, which the classical museums of modern art in the West need in order to expand the notion of modernism in their institutions. So we have to think this through, this development, together. I think there are also examples in Latin America as well, in Argentina for example there is MALBA, the Latin American Museum of Art, Buenos Aires. And then you have more museums of modernism that are more specifically focused on looking in an even narrower way, the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi is really about India, for example. So we have all these different models, and for the first time, we can now step back and have a broader picture of the forces working at trying to articulate and understand what all these modernisms mean without necessarily needing to obtain permission from London, New York, or Paris in order to do that.
Rail: When I think of MoMA, I think of that Alfred H. Barr diagram that’s been so revised. But, in a way what you’re saying is that maybe there can’t be any diagram like that, because the diagram assumes you have a certain number of channels: the Seurats, the Cézannes, the origins.
Enwezor: The diagram made sense at a time in the world when the field of art was still in a non-complementary stage. So it is suddenly the case that Barr’s map was not necessarily to be taken as understanding the totality of the field that it surveys. But it has been received as such, and it has been internalized as such. The current map, or the series of maps that are currently being developed, are disparate maps but they are related. In some ways they intersect and in some ways they diverge from each other. This has produced a very rich articulation or understanding of how someone must really see modernism. That is what our exhibition has tried to do, to enlarge this map and to question the certitudes of the orientation of the previous map that we have been using.
The old imperial and colonial maps were becoming obsolete as the features of postwar art were being developed. This is why our exhibition had to look the way it looks—it precisely coincides with these developments that were taking place across all these areas in politics, in economics, in culture, in technology, in geopolitical shapes. All of these enabled us to have a completely different understanding of the map of postwar art than had been conventionally developed.
Rail: It’s very interesting then to think of what the structure looks like visually; sometimes there are connections that you wouldn’t expect, but they’re not unexpected ones.
Enwezor: You are absolutely correct. I think, when you step into a show and you look at the section on cosmopolitan modernisms, what that immediately suggests is a certain idea of worldliness. That worldliness emerges from travel, expatriation, displacement, migration, and of course exile. I was always mindful of Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile,” in which he tries to capture a certain spirit of cosmopolitanism, but one that figures profoundly around the question of the émigré artists, of the exile, those who have left their homes and have come to shape their lives and careers elsewhere. Said, in this reflection, references George Steiner’s idea that a certain category of modern art, or of modern literature, can be considered extra-territorial—art made by people who for one reason or another have been uprooted, a literature that had to be written with elsewhere in mind.
In our exhibition, cosmopolitanism suddenly appears to be something much more than uprooting, than travel, than displacement. Nestled in this section is the worldliness of the sign. One such worldliness has to do with Arabic script, the way artists coming from different parts of the Islamic world had appropriated the Arabic script as a tool of a certain type of abstraction that spoke to cosmopolitan worldliness. The cosmopolitanism here, between the work of Jawad Saleem], Siah Armajani from Iran, Ibrahim El-Salahi from Sudan, Syed Sadequain from Pakistan, Ahmad Shibrain from Sudan and Erol Akyavas from Turkey, all employing the script as foundational elements of abstraction is really quite remarkable. So suddenly you are sitting there looking at this disparate work all utilizing the same sign-system, but with very different aesthetic results. And that for me is a truly important moment in which our whole idea of cosmopolitanism suddenly opens up and is shifted. It is a cosmopolitanism, not of the artist, but of the sign. There is something quite instructive in this way of using the script that is simultaneously modern and classical. It speaks of artists who are asserting the fact they come from learned cultures, and this for me is really quite remarkable.
Rail: And there of course you have a culture where language takes you everywhere, so there is no equivalent to all the different varieties of English. The differences in English are extremely sharp: Nigerian English is different from Australian English.
Enwezor: And Indian English. So the equivalent precisely may have to do with the cosmopolitanism of the English language as it appears in the 20th century novel.
I think that one of the things about modernism as such is there is a certain kind of developmentalism attached to it in which certain modernisms are understood as original and other modernisms are understood as imitative and belated. This question has bedeviled the way we look at the modernisms of elsewhere. Because they are always read as “inferior,” “underdeveloped,” “unadvanced,” “derivative,” mimic modernisms. So the question then we must always try to address when making an exhibition such as Postwar is what do we do with those categories that have become so ingrained in the way in which we judge and assess and interpret and present works that are coming from elsewhere.
Rail: One you’ve detached the artistic narrative from the political narrative then can you even speak of modernism in this way?
Enwezor: Yes that’s the question, and I’ll give you an example of what I’ve been always puzzled by. In recent years there have been attempts to make global shows about Pop art, as an already predetermined notion, meaning that it has to align with definitions that have already been determined within the West. I’m not saying there’s anything necessarily wrong with it but the problem is how can we think Pop in conditions in which there is no similar economy, where mass media, consumer culture, and capitalism are not as deeply rooted? Where you do not have the same questions around popular imagery that can converge with the meaning of consumer culture that you have in the West, what will the image of Pop look like? How does it speak to the logic of the sign? Can Pop accommodate forms of state propaganda and ideological structure and still maintain our understanding of it? Without a resolution to these questions, it seems utterly meaningless to do a global Pop show.
Imagine what story it would be if you took it to Nigeria, to India, to Egypt. There was a show at the Tate Modern called The World Goes Pop and in that exhibition you immediately see where the thinking completely collapses. Must everything done in the West be elevated to the level of the universal? And this is the question that many of the exhibitions are not asking, that the exhibition at the Tate Modern was not even coming close to addressing.
Rail: What would it be if you looked at other parts of the world and then you try from those parts to look at the former centers, to New York or London?
Enwezor: I was born in Nigeria and I have a strong and embedded sense of coming from a country that has a particular historical heritage. I don’t come into the field of art with the understanding that I need to press erase and that every question and idea that have I been programmed to ask—culturally and historically—will just disappear because I was born fully naked before the great traditions of Western universalism—I come to it with a sense of curiosity. I will say that fundamentally we still have to deal with the question that the idea of modernism as a universal language is [in fact] something very specific. And that, as important and culturally coherent as it might seem, it is not universal. The same with minimalism. The idea of minimalism was not invented in the West. There is a total sense of self-regard. I’m not saying the ideas are not rich or compelling, but what we struggle with is how specific forms of knowledge that have been developed in specific parts of the world suddenly have the status of being universal languages while others developed, or were understood as completely non-universal. I’m not interested in undoing the history of Western art, I cannot. I am much more interested in the construction of a synthetic understanding of these relationships.
Rail: There are two phenomena here, which I don’t know how to connect. One of the things that happens to art history in the 19th century is taking relativism seriously, when Europeans say Islamic art is really not a fallen version of Greco-Roman classicism. That’s where the German scholar Johann Gottfried Herder comes in. How does looking at the past relate to looking at art of the present? That’s a complicated conjunction of art history.
Enwezor: Well, I think we are at a moment in which the contiguity, not continuity, between modern and contemporary art is showing us different picturing devices; different ways to look and understand what artists have done in different parts of the world, and what they currently mean as they become detached from those initial contexts and move elsewhere, opening up. My friend Chika Okeke-Agulu has written a terrific book called Postcolonial Modernism (2015) about art in Nigeria during the period of decolonization, looking at a very specific case study: the convergence of different forces in 1950s, early ’60s Nigeria in which artists, writers, dramaturges, composers, poets, and curators got together under the rubric of Mbari, the extension of an idea from Igbo culture to create a very lively experimental moment of creativity, of artistic production, of contemporary art. The emergence of these kinds of stories, developed by curators and art histories in different parts of the world, are now beginning to reshape our understanding of these specificities. I am very interested in looking at different genealogies of modern and contemporary art, and what we make of them when they travel out of that context. We are now in a moment in which those creations by artists in particular parts of the world that had certain meanings and certain functions and certain articulations are moving into this new realm of regional modernism; they take on a completely different coloration, and we need a new set of tools to think about them.
Rail: It’s philosophically fascinating, how you understand these kinds of changes, but everything turns out to be different and you realize you can’t judge everything by some pre-established criteria because you need other criteria, other conditions.
Enwezor: From my point of view encyclopedic modernism is a picturing device, rather than a device of building a complete knowledge. It’s more projective, in terms of what the map shows, than it is descriptive in terms of what it necessarily conveys.
Rail: When you think of a map of the world, by definition the map has to include every part of the world, you can’t leave out a continent or an island.
Enwezor: Yes, but it doesn’t mean that it has to account for every single individual in the world, and encyclopedic modernism doesn’t have to account for every person that made art. Current museum practices are seeking to reflect and translate these versions of modernism that have been developed elsewhere and how those versions might accord or live next to the already existing classical modernism as understood from the West.
There are museum models that are tending towards new formulations of modernism that are very specific. I said to you that M+ in Hong Kong in Asia, Mathaf in Doha in the Arab world, the Istanbul Modern, representing a particular view of the Levant, the settler modernisms of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa that have their own strangeness to them. All those things have, to me, important relevance to the question of how we should think about modernism. A global modernism is not possible, but an encyclopedic modernism is possible because it does not aim to have everything but it can have examples from many places.
It is for me an exciting time to be working on this subject, to be making attempts to ground exhibitions within certain historical and contextual specificities while still taking on the broad overview of the fact that the world has travelled and met each other at different points during this history and therefore construct the map of modernism and postwar that we have done.
Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.David Carrier
is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.