Sylvester Ogbechie on Okwui Enwezor

At a recent conference in California about “The task of the curator” Sylvester Ogbechie, presented a paper titled “The Curator as Culture Broker: A Critique of the Curatorial Regime of Okwui Enwezor in the Discourse of Contemporary African Art.” It was nice of him to post it in its entirety on his personal blog ( I think this is an excellent paper that should be read by all of us involved in one way or another in the production, dissemination, criticism, documentation or study of contemporary African art.

His views on Okwui Enwezor’s vision of contemporary African art are unambiguously critical. I am not in a position to offer a personal analysis of Enwezor’s curatorial activities. I have just finished reading his recent book (with Chika Okeke-Agulu) titled: “Contemporary African Art since 1980” and I was also able to listen to him at Bisi’s CCA last month, when he came to Lagos. Besides the usual references to his works as curator I do not know much of him yet.

The reading of ‘Contemporary African art since 1980” left in my mind a similar question to the one raised by “African Art now”, the book showing works from the Pigozzi collection. Though the criteria for selection of artworks and the critical framework in these two books is radically different, after reading them I was perplexed at the huge gap that exists between the “contemporary African Art” they portray and the “contemporary African (Nigerian) art” I see in Lagos. Is it that no contemporary art is produced in Lagos? Is it that those producing contemporary art in Lagos are hidden somewhere? Is it that only contemporary art that follows the hegemonic cultural canons from the West deserves global visibility? It would seem as if the continent itself is denied a central role in defining the identity of contemporary African art.

I am working on the project of a documentary book on contemporary Nigerian art in private collections in Lagos. The focus is on what Lagos collectors actually collect. I have already visited 29 collections and seen hundreds and hundreds of artworks produced and collected in Nigeria in the past 25 years. The immense majority of them would not find a place among the “primitive and exotic African stereotypes” preferred by Pigozzi or the post-modern art practices favoured by Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu in their book. There seems to be a problem here…

Though the focus of his paper is on curatorial practices, Ogbechi offers a convincing answer to my question. I hope it sparks a local debate on the issue of the identity of contemporary Nigeria Art. We need it if we want to move forward. My advice: read Ogbechie’s piece.


13 thoughts on “Sylvester Ogbechie on Okwui Enwezor

  1. With this your post I now see that I’m not alone with my thoughts. To add to this “curious case of contemporary Nigerian art”, I also would want us to establish what “classical Nigerian art” is.

  2. In my own opinion,you cannot use the western lens,as a yardstick to judge what is contemporary african art.There are exceptional artists in NIGERIA,who are raising the bar and pushing boundaries…

  3. this is another added knowledge for me. and will greatly inform my new research.however i hope the pallet will be extended a little.

  4. this is another added knowledge for me. and will greatly inform my new research.however i hope the pallet will be extended a little.sir.

  5. The Nigerian art scene reflects the spirit of the nation – diverse and eclectic – almost defing logic for it is populated by the intuitives, the academics, the pretenders and the escapists.

  6. That’d make one interesting book! Also, would be extremely interesting to see how the practices and discourses about art of Lagosian collectors compare to the pattern and rationales of art consumption of the patrons elsewhere in the country and maybe different art forms …

  7. one of the publications on the sage uche okeke is titled-‘nku di na mba na eghelu mba nni’ ie a peoples firewood suffices to cook their meal.this igbo proverb is an awakening to the sickening trend these days of we (nig &afric) always defining the authentic by anything that is self loathing.the ‘aything but us’ mentality is the reason why art in nigeria today assumes some credence if the artist is “away”.this ridiculous attitude informs why certain galleries and so called auction houses wd turn down good art yet accept to host any crap as long as the artist just trekked home from niger or chad.

  8. chika okeke agulu taught me in nsukka before he left for the u.s. in the mid nineties,then he believed in us as young artists.but i doubt if he would feel the same now if he heard my name without some foreign antecedents attatched to it.i surely appreciate the work he and enwezor are doing in projecting art from africa.but if those who we trust to be that intellectually exposed shoud be the ones to turn around and stab us in the back then we still have a long way to go.really when will we stop licking the toes of the west so we can be accepted into the ‘globalized avant-garde’?.an article i read recently on the last art fair in Basel switzerland concluded by painting africa as still the usual peripherial with all our self vandalisation we still are hardly accepted as equal players.OUR MENTALITIES MUST CHANGE NOW.we must be true to not concerned about the so called modernist/exorticist debate in identifying art from concerned about how our myopic attitudes obscures what our approach to the evaluatin art from our native land should doesnt matter if you dont appear on glossy magazines,reviews or auction catalogues.what you are ,you are.if artists in the diaspora who in their battle with identiy crisis, decides to deny their roots and essence,its their cup of cold tea.the question for every artist remains–if they wont include you,would you still put your head up?ogbechie’s piece was terrific.i wish to read more not just from him but from artists, especially the younger artists here in nigeria who usually cower and shy away when pertinent and pivotal issues like this are raised.its high time

  9. “Is it that only contemporary art that follows the hegemonic cultural canons from the West deserves global visibility?” – this question in the article defines the problem. This is not a problem of only African artists, it is the problem of working contemporary artists all over the world who have not the slightest chance to get selected by international curators. Those curators are not interested in representing what is on the ground but bolstering their own intellectual point of view, their thesis about what is going on in the world. Mostly those artists belong to their won social class, have studied in the West at famous universities and are anyway close to their assumptions. have seen great arts curated by them but also a lot of boring stuff, showing a long time the same artists, so called stars of the art scene. It’s really ambivalent.

    1. Brilliant insight! I understand the unhappiness we “Africans” feel at being under-appreciated by the “Western” art audience is exacerbated when we perceive that our own Okeke Agulus and Enwezors are insufficiently championing the importance of our contemporary African creativity. But your comments introduce a timely pause to our grief. In the history of art development, almost everything “new” has suffered resistance or scorn from the establishment. And “new” covers any country/continent of origin, styles, philosophies, social class and educational standards of the artist or curator. Outside the intrinsic qualities or otherwise of any artwork or genre is a combination of many often ephemeral conditions that result in instant, grudging or delayed fame, neglect, acclaim or derision. Perhaps the most important thing to note is that we always tend to safety. European or African, a curator threads carefully, often responding to his market. And always mindful of nudging that market in any direction very gently. You need a humonguous-sized ego and deep pockets to damn the weather report and set sail as an artist or curator.

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