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.