Bisi Silva: time remembered

Bisi Silva's constant movement was a form of unlearning, seen in her awareness of artists and cultural production on the African continent.

Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Bisi (center) and Moses (right). Image credit Serubiri Moses.

According to a report by PM News Nigeria, Bisi Silva (born Olabisi Obafunke Silva, 1962), curator, critic, and art educator, died on the afternoon of February 12, 2019 in the presence of family—elder sister Joke Silva—in Lagos, Nigeria. The report continues to say in recent months, following medical procedures, she struggled to alleviate cancer. Yet she was loved and continued to be surrounded by kindness until her final days. This is important considering novelist and essayist Edwidge Danticat’s statement that “saying someone has died alone is like stating that the person received an even graver sentence than usual.”

African-American artist Simone Leigh, who Silva worked with repeatedly, has noted that Silva moved mountains to bring the contemporary and conceptual arts of African practitioners to new transnational and regional audiences. One of the ways that she did this was through the Center of Contemporary Art in Lagos, which she founded in 2007.

After pursuing an MA in Visual Arts Administration: Curating and Commissioning Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, from which she graduated in 1996, Silva visited Lagos in 1999 with the idea to do a project there. This began her journey of unlearning, as she would fondly recall in a 2017 essay.

I spoke with Silva for the first time in 2013 during Tackling Texts, a reading group organized at 32 Degrees East in Kampala, featuring Silva’s review of africa95—a festival of African arts in London—published in Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art. She Skyped in from Sacatar in Salvador, Brazil, where she was on a curatorial residency, and generously explained the notion of political correctness as it was used in London during the nineties.

Her dignified, sharp, and informative criticism illuminated the state of African and Afro-Diasporic practitioners in London and proved pivotal at a time when European art museums were being held accountable for their colonial past, in renewed calls for the restitution of cultural artifacts.

Silva’s understanding of the contemporary and conceptual practices in Africa was particularly exceptional. Driven by a peripatetic energy to experience multiple African cities and temporalities, Silva’s scholarship was rooted in strategies of a shifting local. Her curatorial work consisted of making and developing a vast network of artists, organizers, and art managers across the continent, as well as beyond it. In the nascent cultural economy between China and Nigeria, as well as other African states, Silva had curated the 2nd biennial of photography and video art in Chongqing, China.

In a way, Silva’s constant movement was a form of unlearning, seen in her awareness of artists and cultural production in a vast majority of the continent. She once said that she’d traveled to more than fifty countries in Africa. It seems like Silva was always running, from place to place. The words of Gil Scott-Heron aptly describe her movements: “Because I always feel like running/not away because there’s no such place.”

Silva’s vast travels on the continent, as well as in countries like Brazil and Haiti, was exceptional because of how she managed to connect various artists and cultural practitioners from various locations. She brought together artists from Brazil and Senegal, and helped usher relationships between curators and art educators in Northern and Southern hemispheres. It was through Silva’s professional network that I was commissioned to research connections between Kiev, Ukraine, and Dakar, Senegal.

She also traveled to Bamako, Johannesburg, Dakar, Addis Abeba, Bujumbura, and Maputo among other places where she developed professional networks with artists and arts organizers. For the cities she loved, like Accra, where she returned again and again, such as in 2017 for the Arts Council of African Studies Association triennial symposium, Silva held long term relationships and appreciation for both veteran artists and young artists, often praising the work of the radical art department at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

In a recent interview with Houghton Kinsman in Frieze, Silva said:

What has been understood as contemporary African art has been articulated from a Western as well as a diasporean perspective and at its worst it has had a tenuous engagement with the local context. My work takes me to several countries across Africa and gives me the opportunity to embed myself in the diverse local cultural, artistic and social contexts for extended and at times repeated visits.

In 2007, Silva curated Democrazythe three-part inaugural exhibition of CCA, Lagos. “Fela, Ghariokwu Lemi, and the Art of the Album Cover” was the first part, a solo exhibition of graphic design works by the Nigerian illustrator Ghariokwu Lemi, who worked closely with Nigeria’s world famous musician Fela Kuti, debuted at the Center for Contemporary Art in Yaba, Lagos. Later, the musician’s critique of Nigeria’s post-Independence leadership guided Silva’s own articulation of a critique of art education in Nigeria. She rallied against what she deemed were “outdated” and “moribund” structures of art education, culminating into the formation of Asiko in 2010, her roaming Pan-African art school, with the “aims of filling a gap in the educational system in Nigeria and many African countries, which tend to ignore the critical methodologies and histories that underpin artistic practice.”

Time was a recurring theme of Silva’s exhibitions. Telling Time for example, was the title of her curated edition of the 10th Rencontres Africaine des la Photographie, the African Biennial of Photography (2015) in Mali. She conceived of an exhibition called Moments of Beauty (2011) of notable Nigerian photographer J. D. Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) in Helsinki, Finland. She later worked on J.D. Okhai Ojeikere’s 304 page art historical monograph (Lagos, Nigeria, Center for Contemporary Art Lagos: 2014), which has since ushered him into the canon of African and contemporary art photography.

In 2013, Bisi curated, Asiko: Evoking Personal Narratives and Collective History a show of works by Kelani Abass, engaging time and memory, which set the thematic tone for the roaming art school, Asiko, also the Yoruba word for “time.” The Progress of Love was another exhibition in which Silva asked, “What then might a critical engagement with the subject of love offer us as an intervention?” with works by artists Temitayo Ogunbiyi and Wura-Natasha Ogunji, among others.

While time was arguably the dominant thematic and indeed, subject, of her curatorial endeavors, I see a link between this theme and the drive of peripatetic anxiety in pacing, rushing, and running. That time could be elastic, bendable, expansive, and nonlinear. This had the stubborn effect of breaking up the neat ordering of “African history.” That Silva’s curatorial thinking collapsed time, only to re-assembled it, is both remarkable, and rebellious to the construction of a totalitarian perspective of “Africa.”

Art historian Tamar Garb, who collaborated with Silva as a curatorial faculty on Asiko, said, “For Silva the richness of local knowledge, and the specificity of lived, embodied, personal experience, provided the precious storehouse from which an African-based practice can emerge.”

The notion of lived, embodied, personal experience implied an intimacy that challenged the perspective of contemporary practitioners with whom she worked. Garb added that:

The location and locality provide the necessary counter-points to the anodyne, theory-driven generalities of a globalized art-world that circulates in a stratosphere of metropolises, market-forces and so much hot air.

This emphasis on the local, is not coincidental, and was something to which Silva returned to, even stubbornly. She is cited in numerous interviews challenging the assumptions of perceiving African artists from a Western perspective, or in the North. She fiercely defended the right of Africa’s cultural practitioners to practice and be content with working at home, on the continent.

For the roaming Asiko art school, organized under CCA, Lagos, participants were often challenged on the basis and configuration of the local. South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala (1981-2014) who attended one of the first editions of Asiko, discussed his experience in Lagos, Nigeria, by saying:

The whole discussion on History/Matter did help me look at how my practice critically and change how I think about my work. My work is influenced by history, both personal, family, and political. Being from South Africa one always deals with the fact that our Independence is 18 years old. I explore on how things are changing and also what history people forget, but the challenge is on how one takes the issue that is personal, or where one is coming from and locates to the broader context.

Like Thabiso, participants often found themselves overcoming conceptual obstacles that enabled them to reposition themselves in relation to local histories.

Reflecting on my experiences as a curatorial participant in Asiko, Dakar, 2014, which was titled, A History of Contemporary Art in Dakar in Five Weeks I wrote:

Perhaps, this (final) project Dear Dakar, also engages history. I recall thinking about the historical frameworks in conversation with (Malian founder of Galerie Medina) Igo Diarra. Perhaps there is something about rewriting history in Dear Dakar. Perhaps in this action of transcribing or recording a collective memory, the group efficiently constructed their own history of Dakar.

This coalescing of personal and collective experiences was seen in the coming together of artists and curators brainstorming how to engage the local through a conceptual project after the five weeks program. The “collective” nature of this task is evident in artist and Njelele art space founder Dana Whabira’s voiceover on the Dear Dakar recording: “I am existing in two places at once, opposing states existing in the same place, in the same moment.”

Perhaps one of the other central aims of CCA, Lagos, was the founding of a library, which holds about 7000 titles, papers, and special collections. Through some of the materials collected, such as  the complete volume of New Culture Magazine, published by Nigerian artist and architect Demas Nwoko, a new path for the curator was opened. According to a statement she made in Manifesta Journal, Silva wrote that she had been inspired to work on a history of women artists in Nigeria, after finding, in the magazine pages, an exhibition review of Theresa Akinwale, a pioneer Nigerian female modernist.

Bisi Silva will be remembered fondly by many artists and curators across the continent, as a guiding figure of intelligence, and her legacy with be long felt in this subtle but meaningful re-reading of time, history, and place in contemporary African art.

Further Reading