Bisi Silva The art of the possible (Part 2)

Many of her formative experiences as a curator were shaped during her long stint abroad, particularly at the end of the 1980s.

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The art of the possible

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Written by Sean O’Toole

Outrage and debate are important (if not essential) to the reception of art. They help to place a work on a historical timeline (or to eject it).

Silva’s own early history is revealing. Many of her formative experiences as a curator were shaped during her long stint abroad, particularly at the end of the 1980s, an intense period of argument about the misrepresentation of contemporary African art by western art institutions.

One particular exhibition played a decisive role in shaping Silva’s attitudes as an impressionable young art student far away from home.

In 1989, after completing her undergraduate studies in languages at the University of Dijon, Silva rushed from France to London.

She was eager to see painter Rasheed Araeen’s landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain at the Hayward Gallery.

In her haste, she totally overlooked Magiciens de la Terre, curator Jean Hubert-Martin’s ambitious survey of global contemporary art, which was also on, albeit in Paris.

In most orthodox histories of contemporary art, Magiciens is offered as a kind of year zero, the moment when Europe suddenly recognized its historical narcissism and tentatively embraced otherness, albeit on its own terms.

“I missed it!” exclaims Silva, chuckling at the oversight. Her absorption with The Other Story, which itself polarized opinion, is nonetheless revealing.

Silva’s key reference points have a particular vintage and geographical context. “People think I am far younger than I am,” she laughs again. “I was in London at the time of the Black Arts Movement.

Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Sonia Boyce, Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili, Mary Evans: those are my contemporaries.”

Like her contemporaries, Silva has cultivated a cosmopolitan attitude that riffs on cultural identity without being parochial. In a nutshell, Silva exceeds the essentialism of being African.

Of course, it does help that she has a success gene. Older sister Joke Silva is a veteran actor and bona fide Nollywood star. But, in truth, Silva’s success is the outcome of hard work, imagination and her refusal to be pigeonholed.

I first met Silva in 2007, in dusty Bamako, where she curated an exhibition of Finnish photography. Think snow landscapes in a desert setting. Brilliant.

More recently, in 2013, she curated a showcase of work by artists associated with five West African art spaces, including Espace doual’art in Douala and Dakar’s Raw Material Company, for Art Dubai.

Her focus on West Africa was important. The phrase “contemporary African art” is cant, a space-flattening conceit that Silva is wary of endorsing, neither in her curating nor her writing, which she is doing a lot more of these days.

I refuse to write about art in such broad terms,” says Silva, who last year published a monograph on photographer J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, a key figure in post-independence Nigerian photography. It took her five years to research. “I just can’t,” she continues.

Where do you begin? It is impossible. Every day I am asked to recommend two or three ‘African artists’. I can recommend two or three Nigerian artists. But how do I begin to recommend two or three artists out of 54 countries?”

After nearly a decade in the Lagos trenches, things are changing. Lagos has a dynamic annual photo festival, LagosPhoto. Omenka magazine, launched in 2013, is contributing to developing a local critical tradition.

As for Silva, she is contemplating a change in tack.

CCA, which has always had to cast its net widely for funding, is scaling back on its exhibition programme.

I am less interested in churning out exhibitions every two months like a factory,” says Silva, an active Facebooker who eschews self-promotion.

I don’t see CCA in that role. I see it as a project, even though people think of it as an institution. It is a project that could last one year, five years, 10 years, or close tomorrow.”

People don’t want to hear this, she says. “But I am not in Lagos to build a MoMA or Whitney.”

For anyone interested in Silva, and there are many people who watch her with admiration, this is good news.

It simply means she is cooking up something new and exciting.

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