I cannot imagine the African contemporary art scene without Bisi Silva. For at least the last fifteen years, she has been one of its brightest lights. Based on the continent, in the Lagos she loved, she worked tirelessly to advance contemporary artists and activists, writers and curators whose work speaks to the material density, the cultural specificity and historical richness of Africa while being fully cognisant (and ever critical) of its place in a changing world. There was nothing parochial or provincial about Bisi. She railed against the term ‘African Contemporary Art’ – as if Africa is a locus that is separate from where ‘real’ contemporary art happens – and preferred to think about ‘contemporary art from Africa’, seeing the cities of Lagos, Johannesburg, Maputo or Dakar as equivalent centres of cutting-edge art production as New York, London or Beijing. The challenge for Bisi was to find the untapped talent, unearth the forgotten histories and contest still pervasive colonial assumptions in order to assert the wealth of Africa’s achievements as well as its future potential.
For me Bisi was a guide and a giver. Although I had met her briefly in London, I first got to know her in Accra, when she invited me to participate in the symposium on the The Archive: Static, Embodied, Practiced in 2013. I was unused to the visceral and sensory plenitude of the continent. A childhood in Apartheid era South Africa is no preparation for the complexity and creativity of an African city (or for the chaos of the arrivals hall and taxi rank) and it was Bisi who held my hand, both literally and figuratively, until I found my feet. In this I was not alone. Although probably more intimidated and unexposed than most, and in need of a confident chaperone, I found myself instantly enfolded into a unique community that centred on the charisma and energy of one extraordinary person who was mentor and model to many.
By 2013, Àsìkò, the experimental art school/residency programme that Bisi founded in Lagos in 2010, had been going for three years and its unique formula was already in place. Designed to offset the inadequacies of outmoded curricula, often moribund art institutions and the crass, market-orientated gallery environments of many African cities, Àsìkò brought young African artists and curators together alongside practitioners, exhibition makers, theorists, art historians and critics from all over the world, to explore the possibilities of what it means to make/curate art now. Central to Bisi’s vision were a number of principles: that art is based on the knowledge of past practices, traditions, archives, histories and stories that need to be unearthed, reworked and conserved, that art is a learned language that requires a knowing engagement with its changing techniques and technologies, that familiarity with Africa’s material heritage and multiple modernities is the foundation of a located contemporary practice but that to be contemporary, art from Africa, has also to engage with the wider world.
Over nine years, and in its six iterations, encompassing Lagos, Dakar, Accra, Maputo and Addis Abbaba, a whole generation of young artists and curators from across the continent immersed themselves in Bisi’s unique pedagogic experiment: part workshop, part laboratory, part seminar, part encounter group. In 2017, the book Àsìkò: On the Future of Artistic and Curatorial Pedagogies in Africa, appeared, chronicling the experiences of the participants, both faculty and ‘students’, although such a division went against the egalitarian and interactive nature of the programme. To be immersed in the Àsìkò environment was to feel totally deskilled and destabilised before being enabled/encouraged to think afresh and make anew, irrespective of status or standing.
Àsìkò emerged from Bisi’s experience of setting up and running the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, (CCA Lagos) an independent, not for profit, arts organisation that she founded in 2007. Consisting of an exhibition space and an extensive library – one of the best contemporary art libraries in Africa for which Bisi was always looking for books (‘Donate one for the library’ she would say to whomever she saw touting their wares) – it also provides a platform for discussion of contemporary art and especially advocates for lens-based and experimental mediums. As with everything that Bisi championed, it prioritises theoretical reflection and dialogue, and embeds critical, curatorial and artistic practices with one another. This was always the hallmark of her work. A graduate of the Royal College of Art London’s MA in ‘Curating and Commissioning of Contemporary Art’, and a significant player on the global art scene (she was Artistic Director of the 10th Bamako Encounters, 2015, on the jury of the Venice Biennale, 2013, curated the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2009, and was one of the curators for the Dak’Art Biennale, 2006, to mention only a few), she nevertheless remained rooted to Lagos, which was home for her to the very end.
It was here that she published her foundational text on the Nigerian photographer, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere in her stunning monograph Moments of Beauty, and here too that she first worked with artists like El Anatsui, one of her great friends and champions. From her base in Lagos, she maintained a global network, building transnational collaborations like the ground-breaking exhibition The Progress of Love that travelled from Nigeria to two venues in the US in 2012-2013 and was designed to counter pervasive Afropessimisitic narratives and social taboos by celebrating familial bonds, personal memories, affective links and bodily encounters as articulated through performance, story-telling, photography and film. 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.
Bisi still had many unfinished projects that she talked about, right up until a few weeks before her death. Central to these was her ambition to write the ten year history of CCA Lagos which she was gearing up to do. Unrealised too was her long dreamed of project chronicling Nigerian women artists of the past. She was convinced that there was so much work to do to uncover the untold histories of work and life on the continent, especially that of women, and she would have so loved to have been part of their discovery. Most of all, she set store in the energy and achievements of the young and remained devoted to Àsìkò as a model of encouraging and galvanising new talent. We talked of going to Cape Verde next year for the next iteration of the project. She was so full of plans, brimming with ideas, impatient to make them happen. I had the privilege of working and travelling alongside her in many African cities. With her I felt safe. Without her, the world feels that much more precarious and small.