The Yorùbá words àkókò, ìgbà, àsìkò are often used interchangeably to refer to time without any conceptual contrast. Though when conceptualized atomically, it is possible to delineate some distinctions among them. Àkókò means a time around “T,” where “T” denotes an event of thing. Such time, it must be noted, is not specific but an approximate. Ìgbà means a period or epoch while àsìkò simply means a specific season (Fayemi and Fayemi 2016: 36).
Time was a consistent element in Bisi Silva's work, reverberating across the length and breadth of her curatorial practice: time in the past, sifting through archives to uncover overlooked legacies; time in the present, working with contemporary artists to document for the future—she sought an urgency in her approach to “historicize contemporary African art” (Greenberger 2019) and in the articulation of her vision, perhaps she understood that time was a transient commodity.
I first met Bisi in 2009 during the artist Kainebi Osahenye's exhibition Trashin' at the CCA Lagos. I followed her practice keenly until we reconnected in 2015, at the 56th Venice Biennale: All the World's Future, directed by the late Okwui Enwezor, where Invisible Borders, under the artistic direction of Emeka Okereke, presented The Trans-African World Space. She was a friend and supporter.
The news of her passing filtered in on February 12, 2019, as the clock struck 7:24 pm, when I received a call from the artist Ay Akínwándé that she had died earlier in the afternoon at about 3:00 pm, after a protracted five-year battle with cancer, bringing to a close this ìgbà in the contemporary art world. Chronicles of her legacy started streaming in from far and near, sent by artists, curators, friends, colleagues, and all those who had been affected by Bisi's life and contributions to art development in the late twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, a personal and collective reflection on her time.
She was memorialized as “bold” and a “game changer” by the New York Times (Sandomir 2019); her impact, as far-reaching as her vision, contested the homogeneity ascribed to contemporary African art within the constraining Eurocentric artistic canon. Bisi encouraged specificities and a wider perspective in engaging the continent, pushing for an understanding of the specific underpinnings of artistic practice on the continent and in the diaspora.
Olabisi Babafunke Silva was born in Lagos on May 29, 1962, to Chief Emmanuel Afolabi Silva and Charlotte Olamide Williams. She moved from Lagos to London in 1972 and then to France to study languages at the University of Dijon. She returned to Nigeria in 2002, disturbed by the dearth of critical discourse and engagement in the arts and the lack of strong institutional support for artistic practice. Once resettled, she founded the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) Lagos in 2007 as a direct response to the commerce-driven, European cultural institution-led nature of the art scene in Lagos in the early 2000s. Bisi brought a new way of engagement and critical discourse into play at the CCA Lagos as a way to engage the local art scene. A vivid example is the 2009 Like a Virgin exhibition, which featured the South African photographer Zanele Muholi and Nigerian artist Lucy Azubuike; for the very first time in contemporary Nigerian art history, two female artists explored their identity, bodies, and sexuality in a way never before seen there. Muholi, whose conceptual strategies engaged the physicality of the female form challenging the portrayal and attitude towards black lesbians in the townships of South Africa through vivid photography portraits, and Azubuike, an artist focused on the way culture, tradition, and religious embodyings of patriarchal society impact negatively on women, came together to challenge the normative role of the female form. The exhibition came at a period in Nigeria when the female gender and the LGBTQ community contended with discrimination.
Bisi engaged time in the nonlinear; she was especially interested in archives, to which she dedicated two successful programs (and subsequent publications) in Lagos and in Accra in 2013 under the title The Archive: Static, Embodied, Practiced, an opportunity for both artists and curators to cross-pollinate ideas and sharpen their skills, focusing more on the methodology of archives and less on technique. These reconsidered the archive beyond its physicality, still including materiality, but also examining how archives shape collective recollection. Bisi utilized this same methodology in editing the second monograph by J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, 'Okhai Ojeikere, which filmmaker, writer, and photographer Tam Fiofori (2019) described in his review “as an acknowledgement of Bisi's sincere willingness to explore, learn and open her eyes wider and keener.”
Bisi reflected on an episode during the opening of J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere's exhibition Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday at the CCA, Lagos in 2010, a precursor to the “scholarly publication of the artists vast archive, which spans over six decades” (Das 2018). She gave a hint to her affinity with time through an encounter she described poignantly during the Kickstarter fundraiser for the Ojeikere monograph in 2014: The photographer introduced her to a woman who at the time was in her 70s and turned out to be the subject in one of the Ojeikere portraits. Bisi had tagged this particular portrait as one of her favorites in the series, and through this encounter she reflected on the composite nature of time, where “the past and the present collide!” (Silva 2014).
She was especially drawn to photography, evident in her curatorial offerings such as the Rencontres de Bamako Biennale African de la Photographie tenth edition Mali (2015), which reflected on how artists experienced the present and other periods across geographies, looking more at understanding the impact of the past on present realities on the continent to engage the future. The tenth edition was a revival and reflection on changing times in Mali after a spate of disruptions but also an effort to find a connection with the current global trends of instability and uncertainty.
She curated several other exhibitions, including El Anatsui's solo Meyina at the Goodman Gallery in 2017, initially realized under the platform of the Prince Claus Gallery in Amsterdam (also in 2017), which dealt with “African history, postcolonial conditions and present realities of everyday living on the continent bringing together disparate fragments to form a whole.”1 She cocurated the Second Changjiang International Biennale of Photography and Video (China, 2017); the First International Contemporary Art Biennial (Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, 2014); The Progress of Love, a transcontinental collaboration between CCA Lagos, the Menil Collection (Houston), and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Missouri (2012–2013); J.D. Ojeikere's Moments of Beauty (Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, 2011); the Second Thessaloniki Biennale (Greece, 2009); and the Seventh Dak'art Biennale (Dakar, 2006).
Bisi Silva was a force who rechanneled the discourse around contemporary African art, bringing to cognizance the historical and so-ciocultural diversity informing artistic practice within the continent. In the course of a career spanning twenty-five years, she fought and highlighted physical and mental “othering” in the representation of contemporary African artists. Her Facebook page was a platform she used judiciously in engaging contemporary art discourse, disseminating knowledge, gathering information, and allowing for critical engagements—which often get heated. She pushed for a look at artistic production beyond the context of sociopolitical dictates, which is often ascribed to contemporary African art and diasporic African art, especially now that socioeconomic instability and uncertainty have become worldwide phenomena and no longer ascribed solely to the global south. She presented Nigerian artists working on the continent and the diaspora whose work engaged the immersive and sensory, such as Emeka Ogboh, or who incorporated performative elements, like Lucy Azubuike, Jelili Atiku, and Wura Natasha Ogunji.
She was especially drawn to artists engaging the historical and ethnographic value of archives within contemporary art practice, like El Anatsui, Ndidi Dike, and Kelani Abass, whose third solo exhibition, titled Àsìkò: Evoking Personal Narratives and Collective History, also alluded to her interests in time and memory. In the course of twelve years (2007–2018), through the CCA as well as her practice as an independent curator, she focused on artists from her home country of Nigeria, bringing the global audience into Lagos, Accra, and many other cities across the continent, while creating a network of artists and curators across the African continent and mentoring several curators, such as Jude Anogwih, Oyinda Fakeye, Tayo Ogunbiyi, and Iheanyi Onwuegbucha (who is the current associate curator at the CCA Lagos).
Through her curatorial practice, she engaged the concept of the shifting locale, evident in her roving residency, Àsìkò, that immersed artists and curators in different cultures, which allowed for cross-cultural referencing and engagement with time undulating between the past, the present, and the future. In the course of 2010–2016, more than seventy cultural producers from fifteen African countries had participated in the curatorial and critical thinking program,2 including Antawan I. Byrd and Nontobeko Ntombela.
Bisi began this program in response to the gaps she identified in Nigeria's educational system, as well as those in other parts of Africa. Workshop fellows were trained by faculty comprising curators and artists, who taught new pedagogy and research methodologies. She described the project as part art workshop, part residency, and part academy, and it has held programs in Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Maputo, and Addis Ababa. Àsìkò was Bisi's way of engaging artistic/curatorial practice in Africa using time and movement as a way to unlearn and re-learn. The timeliness of this initiative ensured that knowledge exchange between artists and curators engaged the possibilities of redefining artistic practice on the continent. Àsìkò was an instructive name, responding to the fragmentation of both artistic and geographical forms across Africa using talks, seminars, workshops, and events reaching out to local and international audience.
The library at the CCA Lagos is an integral part of Bisi's mission “to provide access to critical material on art and culture resulting in one of the fastest growing independent libraries in Africa3 with more than 7,000 books, magazines, journals, videos and other ephemera.” The library, located in Yaba at the CCA, serves art students across the country, especially the students of Yaba College of Technology and the University of Lagos.
Bisi launched the Gallery of Small Things in 2017 as part of Bisi Silva Projects. The curatorial premise of this project is to create intimacy to draw people into works of art, taking a cue from nineteenth and twentieth century exhibitions such as “les Salon independents” and the “Royal Academy of Art summer shows,” presenting artists with works in a 20-inch-square format. She invited me to be part of this project in September 2017, and I was intrigued by the premise of the project, especially at a period when most artists were scaling up the size of their work. She later presented the project at the modern and contemporary section of the African Culture and Design Festival in Lagos (2017) and at the thirteenth edition of Dak'Art (Dakar, 2018).
Bisi viewed publication as a curatorial platform away from the white cube. In a panel discussion on the role of art publications and digital platforms in the construction of critical content at the CCA Lagos (moderated by Céline Seror, cofounder of Intense Art Magazine in 2017 alongside Bukola Oyebode, myself, and Oliver Enwonwu), she listed her ongoing research projects, which included, at the time, focus on master builder, architect, and artist Demas Nwoko. She also highlighted the need for a publication showcasing Nigerian female artists in pre- and post-independence Nigeria. Her major contributions to the field include two edited volumes: a monograph J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere (Lagos: CCA, 2014) and her gift to artistic production and curatorial practice, Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa (Lagos: CCA, 2017) which provides “documentation and reflection on seventy cultural producers from fifteen African countries who have participated in the Àsìkò residency from 2010–2016.”4
Bisi held an MA in curating and commissioning of contemporary art from the Royal College of Arts London. “She was the lead adjudicator for L'Atelier Art Award 2017 by Barclays Bank, South Africa, a member of the international jury Hasselblad Award in Photography Gothenburg (2018) and the 12th Hugo Boss Prize for Contemporary Art 2018 by the Guggenheim Museum New York.”9 She is survived by her siblings Joke Silva, Olajumoke Dawodu, Ojuolope Silva, Olabiyi Silva, and Bolaji Oladunjoye, and thirteen nieces and nephews.
Àkókò ko duro de enikan is a Yoruba saying that roughly translates to “Time awaits no one.” Bisi understood the need for timely interventions, which spanned her career, and for archiving for the future. Sifting through our correspondence over the years, I reacquainted myself with her inquisitiveness, engaging needfully with an accuracy and urgency that, in hindsight, revealed her need to continually acquire knowledge, to share her resources and knowledge, and to leave a legacy for the next generation. Over the years and in many ways, Bisi showed she cared. Her favorite saying, “The more the merrier,” encapsulates her relationship with the rest of the art community locally and internationally.
“El Anatsui Meyina Curated by Bisi Silva.” 2017. Creative Feel.creativefeel.co.za/2017/12/el-anatsui-meyina-curated-by-bisi-silva
CCA Lagos, www.ccalagos.org/asiko-art-school
CCA Lagos, www.ccalagos.org/resources