Okwui Enwezor, an influential Nigerian curator whose large-scale exhibitions displaced European and American art from its central position as he forged a new approach to art for a global age, died on Friday in Munich. He was 55.
The cause was cancer, said his partner, Louise Neri.
In ambitious, erudite, carefully argued exhibitions staged in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States, Mr. Enwezor (pronounced en-WEH-zore) presented contemporary art against a backdrop of world history and cultural exchange.
His 2002 edition of Documenta, an important exhibition that occurs once every five years in Kassel, Germany, stands as a major achievement in recent art history. Though earlier shows like “Magiciens de la Terre” (Paris, 1989) had begun to tell a worldwide story of art, the 2002 Documenta was a testament to how widely Mr. Enwezor was enlarging art world horizons and positioning artists of the 20th century avant-garde as just a few actors in a vast ebb and flow of world civilization.
Many of his most acclaimed shows were group exhibitions and biennials. In addition to Documenta, he curated the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale. Yet Mr. Enwezor also curated numerous solo exhibitions, by such figures as the South African photographer David Goldblatt and the American sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney.
He was an educator, too, serving from 2005 to 2009 as dean of the San Francisco Art Institute [when Jenn was a student there]. And from 2011 until last year he was director of the Haus der Kunst, a leading Munich museum. There he helped organize the monumental “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic” (2016—17).
Self-assured, peripatetic and unfailingly dapper — he favored dark double-breasted suits and the occasional neckerchief, and once made the cover of Men’s Vogue in Italy — Mr. Enwezor never doubted that an African had every right to take the lead at Western art institutions.
“Coming from Nigeria, I felt I owed no one an explanation for my existence, nor did I harbor any sign of paralyzing inferiority complex,” he told the Nigerian art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu in 2013.
That sense was reinforced after he had moved to the United States to study in the 1980s.
“What was apparent was that most Americans I knew and met were actually not worldly at all, but utter provincials in a very affluent but unjust society,” he said. “And when this became clear, I saw no reason why I could not have an opinion or a point of view.”
Okwuchukwu Emmanuel Enwezor was born on Oct. 23, 1963, in Calabar, a port city in southern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. During the Biafran war of 1967-70, he and his family were forced to move dozens of times, settling at last in the eastern city of Enugu.
Living through war and resettlement, he told The New York Times Magazine in 2002, “I learned what it means to be the Other, even within the rooms of one’s own home.”
He began his university career in Nigeria before moving to the United States in 1982, living in the Bronx and enrolling at what is now New Jersey City University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduating, he moved to downtown Manhattan, where he performed poetry at venues like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, attended gallery openings and danced all night at clubs like the Palladium and the Roxy.
Yet the young Mr. Enwezor was “not overly awed or impressed by what the art world was throwing up,” he recalled this year in a New Museum show catalog. African artists, whether on the continent or in the diaspora, had almost no exposure.
He decided to fill the gap by starting Nka, a magazine of contemporary African art, which he co-founded with Mr. Okeke-Agulu, the scholar Salah M. Hassan and the scholar and artist Olu Oguibe. Its first issue came out in 1994. (Its name was taken from the Igbo word for art or creation, as well as the Basaa word for discourse.)
Nka set out to overturn the “entrenched pejorative viewing of contemporary art from Africa,” as Mr. Enwezor wrote in an editor’s letter in the first issue. Instead, he said, the magazine would advocate for art rooted in Africa but global in scope.
Nka became a touchstone in debates about art and postcolonialism, and it led the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to invite him to be co-curator of an exhibition of African photography. The show, “In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” (1996), was one of the first museum exhibitions to present imagery from Africa by Africans themselves, beyond the stereotypes of Western ethnography.
It gave dozens of African artists, like the acclaimed Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, their first American exposure. “In/Sight” also insisted on an understanding of Africa that stretched past the black experience, by including Arab artists, white photographers from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and African artists of Asian descent.
The same pluralist approach framed Mr. Enwezor’s show “The Short Century,” at the Villa Stuck in Munich in 2001, and later at MoMA PS1 in New York. This broad exhibition of African art and independence movements interwove the work of four dozen living artists with archival materials, music and photography from popular magazines.
Roberta Smith of The Times called it “one of those rare occasions when the usually hyperbolic term ‘landmark exhibition’ is not an overstatement.”
“The Short Century” came with a hefty catalog, chock-full of essays, images and primary sources, which would become a signature of Mr. Enwezor’s shows. (For “Postwar,” his last major historical exhibition, the catalog bulged to 850 pages and weighed more than 10 pounds.)
In 1998, on the strength of “In/Sight” and an acclaimed biennial in Johannesburg, Mr. Enwezor was named artistic director of the 11th edition of Documenta, one of the world’s best-attended art shows, with a budget that year of more than $20 million.
Only 34, he was the first non-European to get the job, and he recast the show in Germany as only one node in a constellation of Documenta platforms, which included conferences on transitional justice in New Delhi and on postcolonial literature in the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia. Mr. Enwezor was proposing that an art exhibition mattered as much for the discourse it produced as for the works it presented.
More than half of his Documenta’s 117 artists and groups hailed from the developing world. Europeans and Americans like Louise Bourgeois, Joan Jonas and Steve McQueen had equal footing with African, Latin American and Asian colleagues.
Lucid, rarefied and uncompromisingly serious, Documenta 11 stomped on the Western-centric “internationalism” familiar from humanist blockbusters like “The Family of Man,” Edward Steichen’s 1955 photography show at the Museum of Modern Art, and replaced it with a historically engaged view of the whole, roiling planet, where artists and images were in constant motion.
Mr. Enwezor’s return to Germany to direct the Haus der Kunst, an exhibition hall built by the Nazis, was considered a coup for Munich. One of the first shows under his leadership was an exploration of art and ideology during the Third Reich.
But his relationship with Bavaria’s cultural officials soured, and his time at the Haus der Kunst was marred by an embarrassing scandal involving a senior manager who had pressured employees to join the Church of Scientology — activity that began before Mr. Enwezor’s arrival but that continued under his leadership.
Mr. Enwezor resigned in 2018 for health reasons. Afterward, a new leader cited “management mistakes” as the reason for canceling shows by Ms. Jonas and Adrian Piper. More traditionalist German painters were invited to exhibit instead.
The ailing Mr. Enwezor hit back, asserting that the Bavarian authorities had underfunded the museum for decades and calling his treatment by the new leadership “an insult.”
In addition to Ms. Neri, a director at Gagosian Gallery, Mr. Enwezor is survived by his daughter, Uchenna Enwezor; his mother, Bernadette Enwezor; and four sisters, Rita Ogor Enwezor-Udorji, Maureen Enwezor, Francesca Enwezor-Onyia and Nkiru Enwezor-Onyanta. He was previously married to Muna el Fituri.
Mr. Enwezor’s commitments to cosmopolitanism and expanded historical narratives were crystallized early in his career. In South Africa in 1996, shortly after his appointment to direct his first major show, he watched the waves crash at the extreme southern tip of the continent.
“I was astonished by the experience of standing there, where the two oceans met,” he later remembered. “I knew at that very moment this would be my concept: the meeting of worlds.”