Olabisi Obafunke Silva (1962-2019) was a renowned curator of contemporary art, both in Africa and internationally. A distinguished author, editor, publisher and a mentor to many artists, Bisi – as she was known – encouraged those around her to research, collaborate and read widely, while considering both the local and the global. But first and foremost, Bisi Silva was my friend; hence these words are lovingly woven with memories of her rigour and generosity to which I often turn to shed light on my path.
Honouring the meaning of her second name, Obafunke, which in Yoruba signals “the one who got permission from the king to care for”, she championed artists across Africa and in the African diaspora, some of them overlooked or ignored. With uncompromising passion, she encouraged them to excel, being instrumental in the achievements of numerous African artists who gained global recognition. She had a sharp eye to spot talent and an exceptionally critical mind that would push artists beyond the limitations of the education system. She knew that most art schools on the continent were the product of foreign dependency modelled on European academicism and she referred to them as “a colonial relic out of tune with present-day contextual, stylistic and intellectual realities”.1
Bisi Silva and I first met while studying Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom. After a few years in London, she chose to relocate to Nigeria, where she founded the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos) and worked as the centre’s director from 2007 until her untimely passing in 2019. The vision that supported CCA was that of an open platform for contemporary Nigerian artists to experiment, research and exchange. The art scene in Lagos at the time was conservative, lacking spaces for artists working in new media and experimental contemporary art for whom there were no exhibition or collecting opportunities. Predominantly a self-funded non- profit organisation, CCA Lagos went on to become a locally rooted international centre for African contemporary art, a pioneering project hinged on collaboration. Located on the second and third floors of an office building in the Yaba suburb, CCA consists of a gallery and an impressive library and archive which embodies the heart of CCA, where meetings and mentoring sessions take place around the more than seven thousand volumes providing unparallel access to a vast source of knowledge. It was at CCA that in 2012 Silva curated Like A Virgin, an exhibition of works by Nigerian artist Lucy Azubuike (born in 1972) and South African Zanele Muholi (born in 1972) that dealt with gender issues. Daring and groundbreaking, the show attracted both acclaim and strong criticism from visitors at a time when sexuality was not a component of exhibitions on the continent. Moreover, Bisi Silva’s interest in gender focused criticism was best expressed while she acted as an editorial board member of the feminist journal n‧paradoxa, for which she contributed an issue devoted to African and African diaspora artists in 2013.
From my first visit to Senegal in 2008 to participate in the Dakar Biennale, the sense of familiarity that I experienced in West African soil inspired me to develop projects to connect African and Latin American practitioners beyond the European-North American routes. Driven by her unflagging curiosity, in 2013 Bisi embarked in a similar journey taking a curatorial residency at Sacatar, a place on the island of Itaparica, in Bahia, the most African state of Brazil. I recall our Skype conversations at the time, her joy in discovering the ubiquitous Yoruba traces in Bahia’s gastronomy, which swiftly connected her back to her home in Lagos despite the colonial language barriers. These experiences strengthened our shared vision and generated new collaborations. In 2009 Bisi and I curated the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale, PRAXIS: Art in Times of Uncertainty – which resonates in today’s global pandemic climate as a resilient project taking place during an international crisis – organised in the context of Greece’s severe economic meltdown. The collaboration emerged from our ongoing interest in connecting our respective research focus: Africa and Latin America, and to locate them in the broader stage of international practice. We had both experienced a sense of displacement during the years of our London education, as in the mid-1990s the concept of internationalism was still a ring-fenced colonial construct that placed western modernity at the centre of all conversations. Thus the Biennale offered us a south European platform to gather artists from the so-called global south to expose the violence embedded in race, class and economic relations.
Time had been a leitmotiv in her writing and exhibition-making since the start of her curatorial career, of which Àsìkò became the enlightened conclusion. Remarkably, Telling Time was the title of her 2015 edition of the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, the African Biennial of Photography in Bamako, Mali. Under her creative direction the work of women photographers took the central stage, including Malala Andrialavidrazana (born in 1971), Monica de Miranda (born in 1976), Héla Ammar (born in 1969), Kitso Lynn Lelliott (born in 1984), Ibrahima Thiam (born in 1976), Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (born in 1983) and Lebohang Kganye (born in 1990).
In the last years of her life, Bisi Silva was focusing on restoring the value of women artists from Nigeria’s post-independence period and had planned to develop a long-term curatorial project at CCA on the subject. Combining her passion for publishing and education, Bisi embarked in research to trace the unrecorded legacies of African modern and contemporary art. History was of great value to her, and she ensured that her work reflected respect for the elders while nurturing new generations of creators. As we navigate the waters of time with imprecise tools, Bisi Silva’s compass signals a circular flow: to learn from the past while walking towards the future. Here is my wish that her journey through the circle of time will be forever remembered.
Bisi Silva’s primary passion, education, led her to establish her magnum project: Àsìkò (“time” in the Yoruba language), an independent Pan-African programme for artists and curators that ran from 2010 to 2016, initially held in Lagos and later in Accra, Dakar, Maputo and Addis Ababa. As a guest faculty in Maputo and as a lecturer in Dakar I was able to witness its innovative force. The pedagogical model combined radical education – as referring to the roots of an idea or place – with a nomadic structure devised as one-month-long convivial experiences for practitioners who were more likely to meet their peers in Europe than crossing African borders. As such, it empowered continental knowledge sharing and professionalisation like no academic programme could. Having witnessed Bisi Silva’s utopian roving school, I rejoice at the number of alumni who are exhibiting and pursuing further studies around the world. Àsìkò/Time articulated contemporary Africa in a time continuum that blends ancestral traditions and technology-mediated experience, in contrast with external narratives of Africa predicated on a pre-modern fantasy. She collected the tremendous energy of the project in the publication Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa (CCA, Lagos, 2017).