Friday 15 February 2019

For Bisi Silva, rain of tributes from curators across the world

Bisi Silva, speaking at the opening of Art Dubai 2013, in UAE. Pic: c/o Art Dubai.
Contemporary art and curatorial discipline are the two visual culture vocabularies that Bisi Silva (May 29, 1962-February 12, 2019) will be remembered for in Nigeria. Also, in the world of art lexicon, Silva's works in curatorial field have been well recorded in her nearly two-and-a-half decade practice.

After about four years battle with cancer, Silva, according to a close family friend, died in Lagos, afternoon of February, 12, 2019.

For decades, the Lagos culture scene had blossomed on its highly conservative texture of art appreciation until Silva started puncturing that ego from November 2007 when she set up Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos. Interestingly, the coming of CCA Lagos, in Yaba, outskirt of the Nigerian art hub Islands, fueled the debate over contemporary art contents in Nigeria. The centre actually took off by leaning towards the avant-garde more in presentation of contemporary contents inside its non-commercial art gallery facility. The  emergence of CCA actually exposed quite a huge potentials in some young artists who needed new beginning and a shift from the traditional 'retinal painting' of visual culture that Lagos had conservatively held on to for decades.

Silva's CCA, currently, is the spot to be as regards radical presentation of art. From across the world, the centre has been receiving artists, curators and art historians who either exhibit their work or engage in exchanges with Nigerian art professionals.

As radical as Silva's approach to art was, she still radiated certain level of liberalism. For example, one of the early points of calls for Silva when she arrived from England was Mydrim Gallery, Ikoyi, Lagos. For nearly two decades, Silva kept a robust professional relationship with Mydrim. "Brilliant, articulate, visionary, passionate art lover, Bohemian, yet fully integrated into the Nigerian culture," Sinmidele Adesanya,
Mydrim Gallery described her experience working with Silva. "When the history of the development of the visual arts in Nigeria is told, your name Adebisi Obafunke Silva will be etched in gold as a giant in your time."

From Lagos, Silva, who had MA in Curating and Commissioning of Contemporary Art at Royal College of Art, London, became the face of managing and presenting African contemporary art across the world. Her works, either as a curator or contributing to a pool, were visible across the world. From Lagos to Washington, to Dubai, London to Mumbai, even as far as South America, Silva released her energy in contemporary art management. Her work, for examples, attracted organisers of Venice Biennale, in Italy when she was appointed jury member in 2013. For many years, Silva was on the selection board at Art Dubai, UAE.

While collecting tributes for this publication, it occured to me that, through Silva, I had met quite a number of curators at several international art events. In enriching the tribute, I sourced contributions from some of the curators.

"I knew of Bisi Silva’s work at CCA Lagos for several years before we got the chance to work together when we invited her to curate the 'Marker' programme at Art Dubai 2013, focusing on galleries, art spaces and artists from West Africa. She was a “curator’s curator”, yet she also eschewed curatorial snobbery about the market — she supported artists every step of the way, whether in their studio, the museum, the gallery or fair. Bisi was a tour de force yet also always warm, humble and generous. She was often put in a position of representing “African art” — whatever that may be — but she resolutely refused to be pigeon-holed or boxed in, and made exhibitions, projects and books on her own terms. She was loved and respected by colleagues and friends at home and all over the world, but never afraid to robustly call out when she felt a project or situation lacked integrity or professionalism. Bisi’s passing is all our loss; she will be so much missed." -Antonia Carver, Director, Art Jameel, UAE.

"Shocked to learn that Bisi Silva passed away at age 56. She was one of Africa's finest curators and a dear friend.  'Chance Encounters' the first show of African art in India which she curated for Sakshi Gallery in 2009 introduced El Anatsui and many other African greats to the Indian audience. Spent many hours with her in happy laughter and bonhomie over the years in many continents. Life is unfair." - Geetha Mehra, founder, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, India.

 "I had got to know Bisi during one of her visits to India. There was much intelligence and maturity that came through in her informal conversations, but what will live in my memory is her joie de vivre and her resounding laughter. It is difficult to believe that someone overflowing with life, could be more, at such a young age. The evening spent over dinner at our place with her and El was one of the most memorable evenings for me. Adios Bisi." -Arun Shopkar, filmmaker and scholar.

 "Bisi Silva had a vision and energy that flowed through her acclaimed curation and profoundly changed the processes of thinking and making in the arts across the continent. Artist support and dialogue was central to her practice, she paved the way for many, and her abounding light will continue to inspire generations to come." - Touria El Glaoui, founder, 1:54 Contemporary African Art.

"I met you in 2001 at the Rencontres de la Photographie Africaine in Bamako, your favorite biennial. You were still working out of London. We connected around our mutual drive and passion for creating spaces of freedom and imagination on the continent. Almost twenty years down the line, you’ve done so much. Now you are leaving definitely too early. May your new journey be just as rich and engaged as this one was. Thank you for being such a constant sounding board of criticality, encouragement and support.” -Koyo Kouoh, founding director, RAW Material Company, Centre for Art, Knowledge and Society, Dakar.

Silva was co-curator of ‘The Progress of Love' with three venues in US and Nigeria (Oct. 2012 – Jan. 2013); co-curator of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: Moments of Beauty’, Kiasma, Helsinki (April – November. 2011); co-curator for the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Greece, ‘Praxis: Art in Times of Uncertainty’ in September 2009; co-curator, Dakar Biennale 2017 in Senegal; and 'Telling… Contemporary Finnish photography", in the Seventh Biennial of African Photography in Bamako (November 2007), among others.
 Silva was the first artistic director of Art-X Lagos.
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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