Obituary: Bisi Silva, godmother of contemporary art from Africa

by Wilfred Okiche

The art world, locally and internationally, mourns the loss of Bisi Silva, influential curator, founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), a nonprofit art gallery and education center in Lagos. Silva, a peerless patron of contemporary art- and of the Lagos art scene- who nurtured the career growth of countless contemporary African artists died on Feb. 12 in a Lagos hospital at the age of 56. According to her sister, actress Joke Silva, cause of death was breast cancer. She was buried on Thursday, 21 February.

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Silva’s influence looms large in the art world, primarily but not limited to her work with the CCA. Founded in 2007, as a response to the scarcity of vibrant art spaces in the country, the CCA has as an independent organization for over a decade, been providing a platform for the development, presentation and discussion of contemporary visual art and culture. Emphasizing and engendering collaboration among artists, curators, writers, theorists with national and international organizations, CCA has a formidable track record of promoting professional curatorship in Nigeria and West Africa.

The CCA launch exhibition titled Democrazy, featured album covers by the legendary Fela Kuti and while this marked a first for Silva, it was the controversial 2009 exhibition headlined by South African photographer Zanele Muholi and Nigerian sculptor Lucy Azubuike that got people to pay attention. Titled Like a Virgin, the installation dived headlong into the taboo discourse of sexuality and proved uncomfortable for some of the patrons who gathered. In a later interview with Pulse Ghana, Silva recalled the minor outrage that trailed the arrival of Like a Virgin, saying “It was a really divisive show. There were a lot of objections to Muholi’s photographs of her menstrual blood.”

Silva collaborated with Muholi once again for the 2012 group exhibition The Progress of Love, a transatlantic collaboration with the Houston based Menil Collection and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St Louis. This time, the show included films and photography dealing on homosexuality by two Nigerian artists, photographer Andrew Esiebo and filmmaker Adaora Nwandu.

Frequent collaborator, Tamar Garb described the collection in a tribute piece for Arthrob, thus “At its heart was love, little theorised or talked about in relation to contemporary art, but for Bisi Silva, the generative core of life and the leitmotif of work worth sharing.’’

In 2011, Silva organized Moments of Beauty, the first comprehensive survey exhibition of photographer J. D. Okhai Ojeikere’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma in, Helsinki, Finland. The show, comprised of assorted images of hairstyles of African women would eventually see new life as a picture book. And in 2014, Silva curated Playing with Chance, an in-depth solo exhibition on Ghanaian born sculptor, El Anatsui at CCA, drawing deeply on archival and photographic material. This exhibition would later travel to Amsterdam and Johannesburg. Others include Kelani Abass: If I Could Save Time and Identity: An Imagined State, which considered African identity in videos by artists from Africa and South America.

A dominant player on the world stage, Silva was not comfortable with the term ‘African Contemporary Art,’ what with its propensity to exclude and otherize much of what was happening on the continent from the global scene. She instead embraced the more inclusive ‘contemporary art from Africa’ as a descriptor for art created from the 1970s up until now.

She was artistic director for the inaugural ART X Lagos Art Fair and told the New York Times in 2016 that her role as a curator was “to engage with the artists, to support their artistic and curatorial practices, to empower them, if possible, and allow them to build their networks.”

Some of her engagements on the global stage include serving as artistic director of the tenth Bamako Encounters in 2015 where she used her mandate to showcase a heightened number of experimental work from artists working in the continent and across the diaspora. Silva sat on the jury of the Venice Biennale in 2013 and curated the second Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2009. She was also one of the curators for the Dak’Art Biennale back in 2006.

The godmother

Commitments may have taken her to places far flung but Silva’s heart was always with the city of her birth, a place she returned to after graduating from the University of Dijon in France, (she studied languages) and bagging a master’s degree in curating contemporary art from the Royal College of Art in London. Her thesis was an exploration of the marginalization of black artists at exhibition spaces in England starting with a pioneering exhibition titled The Thin Black Line’ (1985) curated by the artist Lubaina Himid at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. In between both degrees, Silva volunteered in the United Kingdom as an arts administrator.

Unimpressed by the bland curriculum in local art schools upon her return to Nigeria,- she considered them a relic of colonial times- Silva started the Àsìkò International Art School/residency programme, an innovative series of moveable schools holding annual, month long educational gatherings in various African countries from Ethiopia to Senegal and Ghana.

Àsìkò pooled together young African artists, curators, practitioners, exhibition makers, theorists, historians and critics from all over the world to stimulate critical and conceptual thought while contemplating their importance in the world space. Àsìkò went through six different cycles over its nine year history. For these efforts, Hannah O’ Leary, head of the Modern and contemporary African art department at London’s Sotheby’s named Bisi Silva the “godmother of contemporary African art.”

Born Olabisi Obafunke Silva on May 29, 1962, her father, Emmanuel Afolabi Silva, was a lawyer, and her mother, Charlotte Olamide Williams, was a civil servant. In addition to Ms Joke Silva, Bisi Silva is survived by two other sisters plus two brothers.

A common thread running through Silva’s life work both with the CCA and the Àsìkò International Art School is the willingness to carve out her own path while responding to a gaping local need. Silva’s work was a direct response to the situation she met on the ground when she decided to dedicate her efforts to African art.

Centering contemporary art and photography from Africa, placing the work in context and advancing the appreciation through changing times and technological advances was a job that needed to be done. But like Silva told a welcoming audience in a lecture at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, “If you want to do something, you have to do it yourself.”

Bisi Silva didn’t just talk the talk. She walked the walk.

About The Author

Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like and Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.

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