With her unique drive to make a difference in the art, culture, and education landscapes in Africa, Bisi Silva had cemented her place as an inspirational arts pioneer. Her passing left the art world at large in shock. C&’s long-term correspondent Obidike Okafor asked friends from the C& network to express what Bisi Silva and her legacy mean to them. Here, art practitioners from across the world pay their respects.
Bist Silva in Lagos in front of the work of Victor Ehikhamenor, 2011. Courtesy and Copyright: Victor Ehikhamenor
N‘Goné Fall (Curator, art critic and current General Commissioner of the SEASON AFRICA 2020):
I met her in Paris in 1998. The Nigerian photographer Amaize Ojeikere who was working for me for the Revue Noire anthology of 20th century African art introduced us. Two West African female curators. I, the English-speaking one living in London, and she, the French-speaking one based in Paris. It was a four-hour intense conversation about our continent and the role we have to play to knock down all the clichés and condescension around African art in a time before the internet, smart phones and Western ‘appetite’. It was about giving back to a continent that gave us so much. At that time, we were the only two African female curators operating internationally and we were deeply aware of the long road ahead of us before people would stop thinking, speaking, and acting on behalf of African scholars, curators, and critical thinkers.
We are different, had many arguments, and always behaved like an old couple. But we had the same vision and strategy about how to move forward and how to mentor the young ones on the continent.
We did fight many battles, lost some and won others.
She used to introduce me has her ‘sister curator in crime’ and I always referred to her as the Vet (veteran).
She died the same day Yvette and I had our Skype meeting about Africa 2020. I received a phone call from London that afternoon.
I cried for 2 days.
I am still not able to talk about her without crying and I still cannot read the messages I received from people in various parts of the world.
I need time. She was going to do a project for Africa 2020. Our last exchange of WhatsApp text messages took place four days before she passed.
To say that I am devastated is an understatement.
I lost a comrade, a sister.
One day we will have to honor her invaluable contribution.
Obidike Okafor (Journalist and filmmaker):
The story of my career will never be complete without Olabisi Silva, she was God-sent.
She never forgot me after we first met a few months into her journey with CCA, and always put out a good word for me. I feel numb because I was looking forward to checking in in 2019.
I said thank you every time I saw her, she did not need it, but I said it anyway because one thing I learnt is always to be grateful to those who provide an opportunity for you.
There was a time people called me her adopted son because I was at every single event organized by CCA.
She believed in me so much, even when I still had doubts about myself.
Through her, I met some of the best minds in the visual arts and started writing for ContemporaryAnd.
I am a better person and writer because she trusted my process and was never too busy to advise me anytime I dropped by CCA.
She will be sorely missed not just by me, but by the countless people she touched with her intellect and humanness.
Stéphanie Baptist (Artist and educator):
Bisi and I met at the soft launch of Tiwani Contemporary in 2011. I was living in London at the time and Christine Eyene invited me to the opening of a new gallery so that she could do introductions. I had a brief conversation with Bisi that evening and was surprised to get a call from her very early the next morning. She told me she was Tiwani’s curatorial advisor and initiated a meeting for the same day, as she would be traveling back to Lagos soon and wanted to speak further. I immediately rearranged my schedule and jumped at the opportunity. This was the very beginning of our work relationship, when Bisi called, you answered. The memory brings a smile to my face.
I remember her determination. When she fixed her mind on an idea she would stop at nothing to make it happen. The production of the Àsìkò book was one such project. She had a vision to produce a publication that would become an art piece, an anthology and a guide for cultural production. She wanted to push the boundaries of publishing and her determination was infectious.
Bisi inspired so many people it’s hard to put into words what a tremendous loss she is not only to her family and those that loved her but the art world at large. She was a true pioneer and champion of African artists, who operated outside the box and built true communities around the world. She was a thinker and doer, whose work and legacy (CCA Lagos, publications, Àsìkò, written text and conversations) will continue to inspire for years to come.
Simon Njami (Curator and writer):
I met Bisi at the Africa Centre in London where she was an intern.
I remember that very first time. For me, it summarizes the perception I had on Bisi. She was very curious. She asked me all sorts of questions about contemporary art in Africa. She had a strong will and powerful personality. She told me, I am not going to spend my life here. I shall go back to Lagos and open a centre. That was in late 80s!
It is a personal loss for me. Bisi was a warrior. You always knew you could count on her. And we were fighting the same fight for an Africa seen for what it is. Besides all her accomplishments around the world as advocate to the “African cause,” what I shall miss the most is her commitment to a better art education in Africa, namely in Nigeria. Bisi was somebody who would “talk the talk” and someone you knew you could rely on.
Stary Mwaba (Artist):
I met her during the international art program The Archive: Static, Embodied, Practiced (Foundation for Contemporary Art-Ghana & Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos) in Ghana. Bisi called me prior to the residency program assuring me that despite the challenges for travel sponsorship, she was going to see to it that I make it to Ghana. We spoke for over an hour and it was like I had known her all my life. I made it to the program which was a life-changing experience.
During the residency we had a one-on-one talk with Bisi. And by far this was the most important session of the program. Those few hours were life-changing, we talked about art and beyond, it was about my life as an African young man and my aspirations.
It was during this session that I saw and learned of her passion for the arts. I remember her for her commitment, how she paid attention to details. I remember her writing to me at 3 am on two occasions about authors I should read and projects I should look at, that was touching for me.
But what I remember her for mostly is when she came to Zambia. She agreed to come to Zambia for absolutely no pay, to give a talk and help me curate my exhibition We Are Still Going to the Moon in 2014. It was humbling to have her in Zambia. When she visited our home it was beyond the “art”. She was a friend to my family, bringing gifts, two similar dresses for my wife Sheila and my little daughter. She kept in touch with Sheila who was the first to call me on 12 January, as I was attending the CAA conference in New York. She was very distressed when she told me that Bisi had passed.
Bisi’s continued support for my work and other artists working in Zambia is evident for all to see. I am truly grateful to her. Bisi has had a huge impact on the Zambia art practice, not only inspiring young female artists such as Gladys Kalichini and Mulenga Mulenga, but also enabling us to get into important institutions. I believe she understood our situation and needs as a country in terms of art. We celebrate her life – a luta continua.
Martha Kazungu (Àsìkò 2016 and 2017):
I met Bisi for the first time in 2016 and we spent five weeks in Ethiopia on the Àsìkò Art School program. I later met her in Ghana for Àsìkò 2017 and finally in Senegal during the Dakar Biennale in May 2018. I remember my really bad presentations during Àsìkò, those with me about wanting to change the whole art scene of Kampala. Bisi said to me, “There is a limit to what one person can do”. She said I had to identify something specific, however small, work on it, progressively, neatly, critically, and well and that would make a lot of sense.
For me, Bisi is special because besides giving me meaningful connections in Africa and beyond, she was one of the very few who understand the complexities of the contexts in which we stagger to exist. She worked tirelessly to equip us with the knowledge to go about the careers we chose. She worked with effort to let us see and realize and learn to appreciate the specificity of our heritage. She challenged us to understand the importance of reading. The kind of education that Bisi gives is not the education you get from our deprived institutions. She did not need three years, five weeks were enough to equip us with the critical tools.
Bisi’s work lives. #Àsìkòforver.
Elke aus dem Moore (Art historian and curator):
I called Bisi a bisi bumble bee. She was such a beautiful being, she was a star!!!
She dedicated her life to bringing people together by creating spaces for ideas and building structures for our and the next generation. She was able to overcome cemented boundaries – real and mental – with her radicality, love, and tenderness. Her death is a tremendous loss.
My first encounter is somehow the right way to explain how meaningful her decisions and actions have been. I invited her in 2008 to be part of the first workshop within a long term project on art, fashion, and urbanism in Dakar, Pret-a-Partager. And instead of going herself, she sent Oyinda, a lovely young and smart curator, in order to empower the younger generation.
A couple of years later – the project had travelled to Lagos and was hosted by CCA – I invited her to a conference and gathering in Berlin on cultural translation and social transformation, WHERE WE MEET. She gave a brilliant lecture on the potentials of the arts for societal change. I still remember the goose bumps I had listening to her. With her sharp mind she described the fragile political situation where violent attacks on artists are real. Her strong weapon was the firm belief in the potential of the arts, people, and love, the foundation of our lives.
I am endlessly sad that she has left this planet. Although I know that her spirit manifested in all our souls and beings, through her entire work and her beautiful mind. I am so grateful to have met her and I will miss the most beautiful smile !!!! Bisi, I love you.
Jude Anogwih (Visual artist and curator):
A greatness that emerged from a fully conscious decision to take on the challenges of relocating to Lagos (Nigeria). Bisi never relented in repositioning and advancing the vibrant art and cultural heritage of both the great nation of Nigeria and the continent of Africa through her unwavering commitment and incredible professionalism.
Yes, she chose to take headlong and ride that near impossible wind of steering change and integrity. She, intuitively, attracted the global contemporary art buzz to us and made us attractive to the ever-vibrant art world.
She sacrificed so much from the start to the flaming change and impact that she set forth!
Bisi came into the Nigerian contemporary art scene with her heart wide open. She risked all to foster inclusivity and diversity. CCA, Lagos became a space that inspired energetic conversations, projects/programs and debates. Bisi steered all this relentlessly. She was gorgeously unassuming, and powerful!
In 2007 when I walked into the Centre for Contemporary Art, Yaba, Lagos to begin a collaborative voluntary career with her, she was already cultivating a robust plan to inform and introduce the public to her dynamic vision of contemporary art, focusing first and foremost on those in our immediate community of Yaba, as well as the broader Lagosian public.
She also wanted anyone that chose to join her in this “labour of love” (her term for our artistic and curatorial toil) to come with the same open heart and imparting mien.
By early 2016, when I had my last “face to face” conversation with her before I departed Lagos, so much had gone through successfully. Irrespective of the tears and many depressive moments, we had chuckled at more intense outcomes, but she was never caught resting on her laurels. She was already thinking of the next phase; the future of CCA, Lagos, realigning the institution’s mission on a vision that enabled gradual transformation of the Centre’s curatorial, academic, artistic, and civic services, and activities to be more fluid, expansively engaging and focused. She wanted to publish more, expand the library (physically and virtually), instigate more hybrid “glocal” exchanges and collaborations.
Like she always stated, “the more the merrier.” So, this phase would entail tapping into the multiplicity of contacts, artists/curators and networks available to the Centre to shape the future of contemporary art in Nigeria and Africa.
It’s pertinent to note here that Africa to Bisi was not an irrational or unreachable landmass. Bisi’s support and influence on the younger generation of artists and curators as well as her established respect and professional relationship with the wider communities in the arts and of course politics on the continent and beyond made it less tasking to reach out easily across the continent and draw in respective opinions, results, and input.
The Àsìkò Art School, a roving art/curatorial education program she was passionate about, was a part of that channel of effectively establishing and sustaining enriching critical presences in Africa. I won’t fail to mention the numerous exhibition projects, residencies, curatorial projects that constantly kept us engaged with every relevant person, entity, and institution on the continent, and projected CCA, Lagos to the rest of the world.
Her unconditional commitment to the arts/artists made the world orbit effortless at 9 McEwen Street, Sabo, Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria! It was from this metrocentric platform that many more artists and cultural personalities connected back to us, with us, and around us.
Bisi was more than a curator. Her passion to inform all, young and old, was incomparable. She enjoyed the robust conversations that everyone brought to the table on persistent issues around contemporary art and growth. This passion led to multiple mentorship projects, informal curatorial schools (Oyindamola Fakeye, Hansi Momodu-Gordon, and my humble self were her earliest protégés), Àsìkò, MOOC (with Goethe-Institut), artists residency programs, countless portfolio reviews and artists’ studio visits… She was ever excited about improving the level of artistic knowledge and understanding especially among younger artists and curators.
A classical scenario is where the entire Yaba community became aware of our activities at CCA, Lagos and started getting involved, accommodating and encouraging every artistic intervention and event within and around us.
With Bisi, CCA, Lagos earned the respect and trust of the entire Yaba, Akoka environ. It was no longer about CCA, Lagos being only vibrant globally, the Centre established and imparted on other local spaces in Zaria, Nsukka, Ife, Enugu, Abuja… Bisi encouraged us to never take our focus off our local communities, she encouraged wider collaborations and all forms of community-based interactions that enhance the quality of artistic reasoning, appreciation, and outcome. Oh! Bisi navigated these near impossible goals and delivered very well!
Thinking through these and many more, my heart pounds and tears run down my cheeks. They’re not only tears of a massive loss of an extraordinary mentor, friend, and boss-sister. I’m awed by the amazingness of this elegant, fearlessness, Amazonian warrior-sister, who came to battle armed with a charming smile and knowledge fused with arms and ammunition. Her intellectual war chest was filled with an exquisite collection of tomes and resources from every slant of our world. Her commands were poetic, intuitive narratives drawn from direct experiences and encounters. Bisi, an astounding lady that “laughed in the face of danger”. (She was humane and impassioned with her work, and this could, at times, bring her to tears, but always in her office and out of sight from the public.) She fought for all. She fought till the end!
A few weeks before her passing, I had my last conversation with her via WhatsApp; her voice and tone still rang out with a sharp and unencumbered pitch. I commended and encouraged her…
Bisi – thank you for giving us all such brilliant voices. As you transition to glory, rest assured that your voice will continue to continue to resonate, growing louder, and commanding even broader audiences. You will continue to live on in all of us, in our arts, in our hearts and thoughts. Be assured that many more will learn of your will, your dedication, your radiance, and we will carry the knowledge of your example well into the future with all the merrier days that are sure to arrive. Thank you beloved Bisi for a well lived life, and particularly for everything you did for me. You were relentless, charming, and kind! You sacrificed so much for us all.
Thank you, great teacher, sister, and mentor. May God’s perpetual light shine eternally upon your gentle soul.
May you rest in perfect peace Iyaloja of CCA, Lagos!
Alya Sebti (Curator and director of ifa-Galerie Berlin):
Bisi was a pioneer in the contemporary art field in Africa and beyond. She created (it feels so unreal to speak about her in the past tense) a unique and innovative form to protect and transfer knowledge. But most of all, when you met her, what struck you was the laughing, warmth, passion, strength, generosity, and unconditional love and faith in what she did and for the artists that she supported. We have lost a mother figure that cared so much for her little ones: Àsìkò, CCA, the archives and production of knowledge with a mobility and exchange within the continent. It is a shock to know that she is gone but her legacy will continue with all the community that formed around her, we will continue!
Victor Ekpuk (Artist):
Olabisi Silva – I met ‘bisi around 2008 during one of my trips back to Nigeria. She enthusiastically accepted my request to give a public lecture about my work at her newly opened Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA). Our friendship grew since that first meeting; she was very generous with her time, giving me advice when I needed.
I’ve also admired how she directed CCA to become a cultural space where young artists have emerged with the tools needed to navigate the international contemporary art scene.
Her talent, her advocacy and voice for culture in Africa will be dearly missed.