by Ulrike Knöfel
This interview was originally published in German at Spiegel Online, August 17, 2018. Translation courtesy of Google Translate with cleanup by Peter Stein.
Okwui Enwezor is one of the most famous exhibition organizers in the world. Born in Nigeria in 1963, Enwezor served as director of Documenta and the Venice Biennale. From 2011 he was director of the Munich Haus der Kunst. In June he signed a separation agreement there, three years before the actual end of his term. In this interview he talks about his painful end at the Munich Haus der Kunst, his illness, and the new German hostility.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Enwezor, the Bavarian State Government has based the separation from you on your health problems. How are you?
Enwezor: I feel fine. I’m not used to speaking about it, but I’ve been struggling with my cancer for more than three years. But I’m still optimistic and full of hope. There is almost nothing medical that is not being tried on me.
SPIEGEL: When you’re ill, you’re usually placed on sick leave. Did you really want to leave the Haus der Kunst, or were you pressured by the state government?
Enwezor: I cannot talk about all the details of this separation. As early as 2016, when my contract renewal was due, I was wondering if I should stop. Back then, I was sure that I would be able to cope with another five years despite my illness. I wanted to achieve so much in Munich. But then my health deteriorated, I had a relapse. That really upset me. But even if I had been healthier, I would probably have missed what the perspective in Munich was. Because, yes, I got the impression that I was no longer wanted. You know, as the director of such an institution, you need not only financial but also moral support.
SPIEGEL: And that was missing?
Enwezor: All that was missing, even just acknowledgment, encouragement, assistance.
SPIEGEL: In 2011, the Bavarian State Government was proud to present you as the new director—the internationally acclaimed curator. Now, upon your departure, the responsible ministry sent a short press statement. Two cool thank-you sentences for seven years. It could almost be considered an insult.
Enwezor: It’s an insult, yes. I am almost perplexed. The achievements and successes of seven years are swept under the rug. I have worked with passion to raise the profile of this museum, especially internationally. We have achieved so much, not only the exhibitions, performances, concerts, discussions, not just what is visible, but also the scientific research, the scholarships we have awarded. The money we have acquired from private partners. Such an institution—and I believe in this—must also stand for values, values such as scientific curiosity, artistic openness, diversity, inclusion. We did not exclude anyone, everyone should feel invited.
SPIEGEL: In public one got much more the impression that the Haus der Kunst was in crisis. A constitutional oversight (inquiry) determined—because it had been claimed—that the museum had been infiltrated by Scientology. A personnel administrator, allegedly a Scientologist, is said to have sexually harassed female supervisors. He denies that, however. Also, the museum supposedly wasn’t being run well economically: the finance director had to go.
Enwezor: And yet, above all, the impression is created that I failed.
SPIEGEL: You were the boss.
Enwezor: Everything I’m saying right now will sound like mere defensiveness. This museum has always had financial difficulties, for decades. And the people you mention were not hired by me, they were in the Haus der Kunst long before me. I discovered them, so to speak, when the Bavarian Government put the museum under my command.
SPIEGEL: The state government knows its way around the Haus der Kunst very well; it is the main shareholder of the operating company and also manages the supervisory board through the Ministry of the Arts.
Enwezor: And yet only in 2017, after all those years, did Scientology become the subject. It was said that we had failed to have new employees fill out questionnaires that asked them about membership. No one asked me when I started in 2011, no one gave me the form, I’d never even thought about Scientology in my whole life. OK, then just have people fill out the questionnaires. Why this huge uproar?
SPIEGEL: But ultimately it was also about the alleged infiltration by former employees—and about sexual harassment.
Enwezor: And that’s a serious thing. After I was informed, I acted immediately, I got the opinion of lawyers, all this is documented. But resolving this was made more difficult by the fact that the employees only wanted to talk to the trade council, not the lawyers, not me. In the US, I could certainly have managed things differently, but based on what we had, according to our legal advisers, I could not do much. As I
said, that’s all documented. Of course, we confronted the man with the allegations and conducted serious discussions.
SPIEGEL: Did you trust the wrong people? Did you always know what was going on?
Enwezor: Of course one can do a lot better, one always can. But so much was and is being exaggerated, even scandalized in a completely unnecessary way. It was one controversy following another, blow after blow. The architect David Chipperfield, who was commissioned by us, was even accused of wanting to use his renovation of the museum—which was built by the Nazis—to re-Nazify it. How absurd! Or the newspaper reports on the financial deficit in 2017. It’s not in the millions, but you could get that impression if you read the reports about us. So it continued. Whenever a new problem cropped up, whenever I spoke to the staff or circulated a memo, it immediately went public and generated its own dynamic there. Of course, I finally wondered what agenda was behind that.
SPIEGEL: Who could be responsible for that? Your coworkers? Your employer and thus the Free State of Bavaria?
Enwezor: Who knows? It’s hard for me to even consider it, there are so many wonderful people working in the museum, and I’m more worried about their future. In the long run, the truth will prevail.
SPIEGEL: You believe there has been a distortion of the facts?
Enwezor: You construct a picture, a picture of failure, of my failure. And it does not stop. A few days ago, the Haus der Kunst canceled a long-planned exhibition to honor performance artist Joan Jonas.
SPIEGEL: In a press release, this was attributed to the difficult financial situation resulting from “management mistakes of the past.”
Enwezor: Another blow, there’s another accusation hidden in this message, I heard about it when I was in the hospital. It’s like the recent election in the US, Donald Trump has to destroy everything that Barack Obama had achieved, anything he had even touched. This exhibition was developed together with the London Tate Modern
musuem, where it was already on display. Joan Jonas is an artist of historic importance, award-winning, now eighty-two years old, what a disrespect to her. Maybe the scandalizations are meant only to distract from the real misery.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Enwezor: The Haus der Kunst has—and has had for decades—a major structural deficit. There is not enough money, the institution is chronically underfunded, it lacks staff. No one wanted to invest much, but wanted it to make a big impact. That’s one thing.
SPIEGEL: What’s the other?
Enwezor: Maybe our content orientation did not fit into the current political climate. We really felt committed to global dialogue, which of course meant we were not just hosting blockbusters. “Postwar,” our exhibition on post-war art, has set new standards.
SPIEGEL: You brought together well-known and lesser-known artists from all over the world and showed that cultural progress since 1945 has taken place not just in the West. This was a far-reaching revaluation of recent art history, you received international acclaim. But it didn’t draw a large number of visitors.
Enwezor: Not everything can be reduced to success at the museum ticket office. Sometimes the gain an institution receives is not financial. Do you know what is amazing?
Enwezor: Many of our exhibitions have been taken by other museums after being shown here. Our exhibition of sculptures by Louise Bourgeois traveled to Russia, Denmark, and Spain. In Moscow and in the Danish Humlebaek around 200,000 visitors came, in Bilbao even 600,000. But in Munich, the starting point, it had been less than 80,000. Our exhibitions have an international appeal, but why are they more popular elsewhere than here?
SPIEGEL: Is Munich no longer a good place for contemporary culture? In the Munich theater scene as well, the experimental people are having a hard time. Matthias Lilienthal, director of Kammerspiele, is leaving the city.
Enwezor: People often say they are interested in contemporary culture. But contemporary art is a bit tough and challenging, not catchy, and not everyone likes it. People are still talking about the really great Ai Weiwei exhibition that opened in the Haus der Kunst in 2009, a few years before I came. But if you want to measure the popularity in visitor numbers, I have to disappoint you, there were only 100,000 people.
SPIEGEL: Do you regret having come to Munich?
Enwezor: No, no way, I’m happy with the work I’ve done here. I’m even tremendously proud of it. I am just surprised that what I have achieved is now being slighted. Basically by the people who brought me, who extended my contract in 2016.
SPIEGEL: What do you think about Germany?
Enwezor: Germany was so important for my intellectual and professional development. I was offered so many opportunities—Documenta, many other projects, incidentally also in Munich. For me in 2011 it was much more natural to move to Munich than, for example, to Stockholm, simply because everything here is more familiar to me, because I am well connected here. So I have a long and good relationship with this country. But I am dismayed by the evolution it is taking now.
SPIEGEL: What do you notice?
Enwezor: The political climate in this country is causing many people to give up everything that has been achieved in the past decades. And you can see that most clearly in dealing with the refugees. When I was appointed head of Documenta in Kassel in 1998, Germany was then arguing about dual citizenship. But today’s debate, the level of hostility, is really dangerous. Cultural institutions have to take a stand against the other values. One should not hand art over to the populists.
SPIEGEL: You were a refugee yourself as a child. Nigeria was in civil war at the end of the 1960s, and your family fled from one place to another.
Enwezor: That’s something you never forget. Especially if you have experienced that as a young person, you will never get over it. This feeling of being constantly in danger of being hunted. Today, tomorrow, the day after. It was very dramatic, but my family survived, at least my smaller circle. Two million people died at that time. Today we see so many new catastrophes, Syria is just one of them, and when I hear how refugees are being talked about and how some of them just want to capitalize on it, that’s shattering for me. Here, not far from my apartment, Pegida supporters marched through the streets every Monday night. I often was coming from work and I saw them. That basically clarified my position here, as an African in a predominantly monocultural city, I am one who stands out. And then you ask yourself, can you feel safe? Who will help you if something happens to you? It’s just something that goes through your head.
SPIEGEL: As a director at the Haus der Kunst, have you become the victim of a political climate?
Enwezor: Basically, I do not see myself as a victim of anything. But it is quite conceivable that my origin, even my appearance, leads some to make projections. I observe very well how I am devalued culturally.
SPIEGEL: How do you determine that?
Enwezor: In the way people talk about me, the way communication from official places targets me, it also finds an echo in the newspapers. There I read that the next director has to speak German. On the other hand I am reproached for not mastering the German language. This is frighteningly overemphasized. Some people do not even bother to pronounce my name correctly, but they demand that I speak German. It makes it sound as if I have to pass a language and integration test, but I do not have to, I’m not an immigrant, I have a Nigerian and a US passport. I came because I was asked to. They brought me from New York and hired me, even though it was known that I did not speak German. I believe that for those who now are now demanding one speak German, it’s not about communication but about something else.
SPIEGEL: You are a world citizen, used to traveling.
Enwezor: And now I’m commuting between the hospital and the flat, just two days ago I came home after being in the hospital the previous two weeks. It is a completely new experience for me not to be so mobile, to be in one place for a long time. That requires me to readjust. I write a lot, especially essays. I’ve got a book coming out, I can still do these things.
SPIEGEL: What do you wish your successor in Munich?
Enwezor: Only the best.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Enwezor, we thank you for this interview.
Image of Okwui Enwezor via the Wall Street Journal.