Okwui Enwezor’s Last Exhibition

Will Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America be as formative as Documenta 11 was at the start of the millennium? A report from a panel debate in New York.

Okwui Enwezor (1963–2019).

On Thursday 18 February, Artforum and Sotheby’s hosted a virtual panel discussion on the exhibition Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, recently opened at the New Museum in New York. Originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor, the exhibition is based on a series of lectures the renowned Nigerian curator gave at Harvard University on the entanglements of Black mourning and white supremacy in the work of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Daniel LaRue Johnson, and Jack Whitten. Enwezor died in March 2019 while planning the show, which was assembled into present form with curatorial support from artist Glenn Ligon, professor Mark Nash, and Naomi Beckwith, currently senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, who described the exhibition as “a protest, a procession, a funeral, and a party all become one.”

Moderated by artist and scholar Malik Gaines, the panel included Beckwith and New Museum Director Massimiliano Gioni, as well as artists Theaster Gates and Julie Mehretu, both of whom enjoyed close working relationships with the late curator. Following a pre-recorded virtual tour of the exhibition with Gaines and Artforum Editor-in-Chief David Velasco, the conversation got off to a brisk start questioning whether the Black imagination could be exhausted under present conditions. While the consensus among the panelists was that this “resource” will persist as long as conditions remain hostile to Black life, Mehretu countered that there is an exhaustion in the reception of art made by grief and grievance – a fact to which institutions must urgently attend. 

Malik Gaines, Naomi Beckwith, Julie Mehretu, Theaster Gates and Massimiliano Gioni took part in the virtual panel discussion.

The conversation then turned to Gioni, who spoke about practicalities surrounding the show. This was followed by a discussion of Enwezor’s considerable contributions to the field, including landmark exhibitions such as The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 in 2001, and his theorisation of “multiple modernities.” Enwezor’s legacy as a thinker came up again during the following Q & A period, in which the panelists cited a number of individuals carrying on his work, including Christina Sharpe, Fred Moten, Frank B. Wilderson III, Kellie Jones, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, and more. Yet, as the panelists made clear, the late curator’s influence was also felt on a deeply personal level. Gates, for instance, choked up while describing Enwezor as a paternal figure and a mentor “making space for us to show up and be our whole selves.” Just so, much of the ensuing discussion took on a reverent tone.

Issues surrounding legibility and opacity recurred throughout the conversation, particularly in reference to abstraction as form of resistance to spectacular representations of Black suffering. As Gates aptly put it: “Black experience is coded for survival.” Relatedly, Beckwith contributed one of the evening’s highlights with an all too brief discussion of what she calls the “racial sublime,” a term inherited from Enwezor used to describe a form of madness that emerges from anti-Black violence. The issue of how “the spectre of blackness can come through or even undergird the sublime,” was also taken up by Mehretu, who gave a detailed – and, at times, tedious – account of her process and her contributions to the show. 

The hour-long panel discussion concluded with a question concerning the exhibition’s potential resonance outside the United States. Citing the international reach of the Black Lives Matter movement, Gates offered that the United States is merely point of origin for international grievance with the colonial project of Western modernity. Beckwith took this a step further, suggesting that it is through the work of Black artists in the Americas that a global vocabulary for the trauma of colonisation, white supremacy, and racialised violence might emerge. Indeed, Grief and Grievance is an exhibition that appears poised to define the coming decade, much like Enwezor’s Documenta 11 did at the start of the new millennium. 

Note: Kunstkritikk will get back with a review of the exhibition.

Is Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America poised to define the era of Black Lives Matter, much like Enwezor’s Documenta 11 did at the start of the new millennium?