To compliment the 1-54 FORUM programme, we invited many of those who knew Silva to share one thing they learnt from her, which could be useful for others to know. These are now all published below. Ranging from practical advice to the anecdotal, this compilation is intended to act as a set of tools for a future without Bisi Silva. We extend our greatest thanks to all the contributors for their open, important and heart-warming words.
Sokari Douglas Camp CBE
Sandra Mbanefo Obiago
A printed booklet of a selection of these contributions is available at 1-54 FORUM throughout the fair. Make sure to get a copy. The 1-54 FORUM programme can be explored here.
Nancy J. Hynes
Writer and Editor
COLLABORATE. Make many alliances; you’ll need diverse partners to create what doesn’t yet exist.
DECENTRE. Reject the fatalism of centre and periphery; accumulate resources locally and make alliances until there are many centres and no single periphery.
DOCUMENT. Build a body of critical words; control the discourse by creating the discourse.
ENCOURAGE WOMEN. Through commissions, conversations, friendship and information, encourage women in the arts. Be generous, share contacts and ideas.
PUBLISH. Through reviews, interviews and texts in journals and books, produce a body of knowledge that can be referred to by others and built upon; without this, an artist and her work easily becomes lost in time, framed by inappropriate or irrelevant contexts. If unpublished, nuanced individual experience is ignored and written over, scribbled upon, obscured – as has happened to many artists working in Africa or in the African diasporas.
READ WIDELY, LOOK OFTEN. Be aware of what’s happening around the globe as well as in your own backyard, even if that backyard is as rich and distracting as Lagos or Dakar or London.
WATCH FOR WHO AND WHAT HAS BEEN IGNORED. Then champion her/him/them/it.
And so she founded the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos) and its research library, travelled widely, developed Àsìkò, a new model for arts education, curated locally and internationally, wrote, published and encouraged others (including myself) to write, publish and speak out.
Euridice Zaituna Kala
The last time I saw Bisi Silva, I saw her twice and this was during the Dakar Biennial in 2018. Once during the opening and the next during a cocktail party at the French ambassador’s house.
It was during the opening that Bisi was expressing a level of stress that I was familiar with, the [non] arrival of artworks; meant to be cleared but still held at customs. Bisi was putting together the exhibition The Gallery of Small Things, an antonym for the amounts of work she had been through. She said, “Artworks, the most important thing you know…,” She seemed out of sorts as I passively stood by as an active listener.
The second encounter and also the last time I saw Bisi, we were unwinding over a glass a wine (I think, it could have been champagne). This time, she was expressing how proud she was of the Àsìkò (2015). She told me, “You know Euridice, Immy is Amsterdam, Kelvin just finished his masters, Gresham is showing everywhere, Gladys is in South Africa…”
And it was in that moment I got sense of the essentials… Artworks and people (artists) mattered to Bisi Silva.
Artist, Curator and co-founder of Video Art Network, Lagos (VAN, Lagos)
Working with Olabisi Silva, will always be an exceptional life enriching experience. She inculcated in me the art of striving dedicatedly towards my goal and seeking along my pathway collaborative minds that will enrich the value that we seek through our encounter.
Bisi’s most obvious mantra was “’he more the merrier’. It wasn’t just about connecting individuals, goals and interests. It was more of the common sense of finding a mutual ground to persistently make and sustain positive changes in the arts in Africa. Bisi had unequivocal reverence for artists. Irrespective of their status, she aimed for one basic goal: artist’s happiness- “Artists should always be happy working with a curator… artists deserve the maximal benefits of their labour and realizations…” Unfortunately, this sensibility remains a less considerable factor in the contemporary art world today.
From all fronts, Bisi reached out, encouraged, guided and provided professionally enriching inputs for all cadres of artists to effectively grow.
To Practice the Radical Art of Friendship
Independent Curator and Writer
Bisi Silva taught me that we all have the capacity to positively influence each other’s lives through listening, respecting and loving each other. By this act of kindness, we can change the world.
Throughout life we are blessed with teachers of all kinds, stay open as they may appear at any time. Attune yourself to your own capacity and willingness to teach others. You don’t need a formal title of ‘Mother’ or ‘Mentor’ to show compassion, to deeply care for, encourage, and spark change. Seize the opportunities to lift up others that arise throughout your day. The connection between two people is a powerful tool. My friendship with Bisi Silva changed the course of my life and my perception of it.
Bisi Silva has shown me how to practice the art of friendship with intent to inspire. In this there is a realisation that, together, we can change the world – one friendship at a time. She taught me to act with a level of commitment to my ‘work’ that would allow the best of myself to emerge, as Bisi expected it of me. To tell the stories that had not yet been told. To always, unceasingly dream big.
I met Bisi for the first time at the Àsìkò Addis Ababa workshop in the summer of 2016. I had such a life changing experience at this workshop, meeting with a lot of professionals who are big in their fields, which had a big impact in my life and I am so thankful for that.
It is very hard to pin down one quality or value that I learnt from Bisi because she has so many, which are very much essential not only for my profession but also for my life in general which I really value so much.
The quality which stands out for me is that she did everything with Love. The relationship that I had with her professionally and personally I witnessed Love plays a massive role. Up until she passed away she wanted to be involved in my professional and personal life, showing me support and guidance even while she was in hospital, which I will never forget.
I first met Bisi in 2014 at the eleventh Dak’Art: Contemporary African Art Biennale in Dakar. At the time Bisi was conducting her Àsìkò programme in the city, but I didn’t take part in the programme until 2015 when it was being held in Maputo, Mozambique. It really was an experience of a lifetime. I will never forget it. It was a deep point of reflection, especially for my practice as an artist and as someone who had just started out, to join great facilitators and be a part of such challenging discussions. One thing that stayed with me and has had an impact on my life, was that Bisi always emphasised: Great artists must be generous, with their knowledge and how they connect and share with their colleagues. Bisi herself was enormously generous with her knowledge and was dedicated to connecting practitioners on the whole continent. Bisi understood the challenges we faced in the formal education system and the colonial systems we were in, but the sessions at Àsìkò were really tough, I must say.
It turned out to be very fruitful eventually, in terms of how we reviewed our work and how we saw ourselves as practicing artists. And those intending to be. We realised there was a lot of work to be put into being a practising artist. I found it really difficult to start a new body of work after participating because I had to condense everything and I desperately wanted my new thoughts and perspectives to come out, there was a real passion. I knew this passion would come out eventually and I was willing to wait, knowing it may happen now or in ten years time. I was lucky it was quite fast. It was a difficult and good position to be in. If you look at my work before and after or the work I do now, you can see it hugely influenced me.
I also distinctly remember when Bisi was doing the African Cultural and Design Festival in Lagos, she contacted me. She was working on The Gallery of Small Things and wanted me to be a part of it. I was in the studio, but I didn’t have any work to show. She used to also emphasise that you can never have excuses for not being part of things, and I would not give Madame Bisi an excuse not to participate. She was a no non-sense woman. I had to work tirelessly, but I was happy that she had work to show in the exhibition.
Tough and so motherly, it is challenging to find that balance. Someone who demands you to do the right thing and demands the best of you but understands that you are human and have pitfalls. She had a passion to change things and to change the landscape of how things are being done, she had an infectious smile and when she left, I really could not think of anyone who could replace who she was and what she meant for African contemporary arts.
Editor of KT press/n.paradoxa
Bisi Silva was both British and Nigerian – and this “both/and” is important – as she divided her life between these countries. She was as critical of institutional racism and sexism as the legacy of colonialism, and aware of the problems of nepotism, corruption, and partial investment in culture in both contexts, because of their consequences particularly for women. She was interested in black British experiences in global and trans-national terms amongst other African diasporas: not only the Black Atlantic (between Europe, Africa and the USA), but Brazilian, African-American and Afro-Caribbean experiences, as evidenced by her editing of a special issue of n.paradoxa (vol 31, Jan 2013) on ‘Africa and its Diasporas’. She supported artists from Africa, as much artists of African origin working globally; and she was passionate about expanding the scholarship on Nigerian artists, particularly photography, in post-independence Nigeria. This expansive vision, determinedly and professionally pursued, is central to my memory of her.
Sokari Douglas Camp CBE
I admired Bisi very much and did consider her to be a friend. Before she decided to settle in Nigeria, she came to my studio to ‘sound me out’ on how she wanted her career to develop. She had achieved a degree in curating and knew that her career could not go far in England. Yet she was qualified to work with any artist or institution in the UK. I think she had gone for various interviews and had been refused.
Bisi wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea to return to Nigeria to work with artists, I think Obasangio was the President and quite a few people were returning to Nigeria to start up businesses – Bisi was well connected in Lagos and brave enough to take the plunge – Look how well she did?
Forming CCA and encouraging young and older artists to show and talk about the broad range of work that could be produced. Non-commercial work, rich in ideas and philosophy. Such a gift to global art; a chance to think and work in a way that would have been welcomed anywhere in the world; had its base in Nigeria.
She took my work to Joburg Art Fair and enticed me to talk about my work at CCA when I visited Nigeria. We were hoping to do more work together when she passed. She is missed- But her fierce strength and belief in Art will not be forgotten.
Director, Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Sotheby’s
I run the Contemporary African Art Department at Sotheby’s and have done so since 2016. But before that, I was a fan and follower of Bisi Silva for ten years, since I started working in this field. Bisi Silva’s work, in her curation, her publication and her research have been really inspirational and important to my work.
When I joined Sotheby’s, Bisi took on more of a role of a mentor to me. She was so supportive in my role and in the participation of Sotheby’s in this field. I think if I learnt one lesson from her, it would be to really lead and not to follow. This is a market which is at a very crucial stage as it breaks out and I see our role as laying the foundations and making sure that we produce the highest quality sales that we can. We pride ourselves on research and our thorough investigation of literature, provenance and exhibition history, so that we can provide the very best service for collectors and for the artists we are promoting.
Bisi did so much to include African art and artists into the international art world through her international exhibitions in which she included African artists and also in the world-class exhibitions that she staged on the African continent. I think in my role all I can do is try and uphold that legacy and perhaps provide some of the mentorship that she provided to me to the next generation.
It is hard to put into words, the experience of Bisi. I have thought of how best to write a tribute, but all that comes to mind are memories of our conversations and the surety of her guiding voice. Having her meant access to a wealth of knowledge, a bridge to many opportunities and simply having a friend. If at all there was something Bisi lived by, it was generosity…in time, resources and knowledge. She was the finest embodiment of this.
Below are a few email exchanges that occurred in a span of one year before she passed on. Often times though, there would be long periods of waiting for her responses and conversations stretched over, spilling over month to month. This sample will offer only excerpts of these conversations. It is my hope that somehow, they give a glimpse of her mentorship and friendship…
I sent the last email a few days after I got the news of her passing. Her auto-response was still on and I thought it was subtly profound.
Rest well Ma!
How are you Ma? Do you mind writing me a recommendation letter for my application for an MFA at the
School of The Art Institute Chicago? … In ref to Asiko especially. I would need your consent before I put forward your name and contacts on the application portal. Looking forward to hear from you.
Jess sorry for delay but I have been unwell and on extended medical leave.
I will try my best only if no one else. You will need to write and I adapt.
Bisi! I got in. on full scholarship!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THANK YOU is all I can say!!
Dear Jess, –
So nice to hear from you and such wonderful news too.
I am happy that more opportunities are coming your way and that you will be holding your own with the
‘boys’ because I know that you can. Well Done!!!
Go hard! Lots of work to be done it seems but you have just got to seize the moment and make the best work you want to and that you can make. Don’t mind anybody o! Just keep doing what your heart and soul tells you to do and success will surely come.
Chicago will be amazing too. Just getting another perspective on life and the world and all that just feeds into your work.
Just a quick question. Will you be signing up/represented by any gallery back at home?
Good luck with everything and keep me informed on work and other things.
How are you Ma? I talked to Iheanyi about the exhibition. Thank you for the recommendation. I am happy and excited to participate. It was sad to hear that you are away on sick-leave. I hope you are better now. We need you back on your feet!
SAIC: Thank you is an understatement. I can truly trace this back to you Bisi. That HPAC residency you got me on has set a lot of things in motion for me. I will go hard!!
I wanted to send you some books. Let me know when you are back so that I can find a way.
Warmest from Nairobi,
Still sad you are not with us anymore. I send you love nonetheless. I am doing the best I can with regards to work and school. You would have loved to hear the exciting things that are happening. You would be proud!
CCA-Nairobi will be a reality mama. This is just the beginning.
Also Slazburg was beautiful!
Rest well Ma,
Thank you for your email. I am on an extended leave with limited access to email.
For enquiries regarding CCA Lagos please contact Kemi Aderinto on [redacted contact]
For programme information please contact iheanyi onwuegbucha – [redacted contact]
Bisi, oh my Bisi,
I have so much admiration for you, you who has carried and will carry for life, the torch of the contemporary African woman open to the future and innovation.
I saw this glimmer of hope and this fervent belief that contemporary art from Africa, with a little structuring and access to knowledge, could lift our generation of artists embrace this global village that is the world today.
Humbly, simply, you fought body and soul to value the woman, artist, African and allowed us to express all this intrinsic strength that it carries in it.
For The Progress Of Love (The Centre of Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos) 2012), without taboo, over several months and in several countries, through exhibitions and exchange workshops with the youngest, you presented my experimental work on violence against women, out of love that is beyond understanding.
You are a beautiful person, and this luminous energy that you transmitted to me, I also hope, in the wake of your steps, to transmit it to others.
I still hear your voice, like a whisper in the hollow of the ear.
I know how lucky I was to move a little with you.
Bisi Silva was an incredible force. A ‘soul-sister’ and ‘mother’ in the arts, as well as a
mentor to so many who leaned on her for keen advice, critical thinking, astounding
research and pioneering exhibitions, which often highlighted the contemporary voices of
women artists while paying homage to the important legacy of women artists over
She indeed crafted and has left us with a legacy of her own. Dear to me is the memory of
her invitation to include my sculpture/installation – Moskito Ministry – in the all women
group exhibition, All I Ever Wanted (2011), presented by the Centre for
Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA Lagos), which Silva founded and directed in
2007. A few years later, CCA Lagos partnered with VANLagos founded by Jude
Anogwih and Emeka Ogboh, to present an outdoor screening of my video AfroOdyssey
IV: 100 Years Later (2014) alongside other critical works. Silva always recognized the
value and importance of the ideas embedded in my work and the need to share them with
local audiences in Nigeria and beyond. She did not shy away from “taboo” subjects
around gender and sexuality. She took measured risks where few other creative spaces
where willing to navigate – a testament to her courageous and resilient heart.
As mentioned in the 2017 publication of IAM – Intense Art Magazine- Nigeria, “CCA
was one of the first independent art spaces in Lagos to offer a dedicated platform for the
presentation, development and discussion of contemporary visual art and culture.
Presenting critical works in previously under-represented media – such as film,
photography, video, installation and performance”. Surely, Bisi Silva’s tireless efforts to
bridge gaps, raise consciousness and educate the world about the contemporary work of
Nigerian and African artists can’t be understated. We owe her an incredible amount of
gratitude and pay honour to her powerful position as, writer Bukola Oyebode describes –
“one of the most important voices in the continent’s professional scene”.
Bisi Silva, may you forever rest in peace knowing that your ancestral spirit continues to
inform and guide us in the present time and, into the future!
Whenever I meet Bisi on a 1on1 basis, she will ask: “Tyna, what new project are you working on?” “Madam, no be everytime brain dey work like that na”. That might be my instant reaction. In my head o. Annoying part is when she asks you your five-year plan. “I have no lights (power) Bisi. I need to focus on how to make work in an environment without ordinary power”. That is usually my response, still in my head.
She will push you. Bisi. She cares not what condition you think or create works. Just be productive. And do it well.
She brought in a whole new energy that disrupted ‘the normal’ in the Nigerian art scene, stretching it yonder with the Àsìkò projects. Bringing new energies that reshaped new breed of African artists. She lived. In her own terms and kicked asses!
I Am Grateful There Was A BISI and I met her.
How can we move forward without the appropriate tools and systems for acquiring and disseminating knowledge? (1996 Bisi Silva)
I met her in 2008 at master class in Maputo and it was the first time I saw a woman step so directly into her power and make grown men pale and almost cry after their one-on-one critique sessions.
She was a revolutionary. Not a quiet one, an outspoken and clear one. Honest, she shot straight and was fierce, everybody knew she was right: She was consistently firm and also soft and gave credit where it was due.
Her stance was: so what if you are an African photographer? Be a photographer in the world and up your intellectual and technical game and engagement.
She directly challenged victim mentality and she cautioned the individual for placing him or herself below another. She encouraged artists to step into their role on a global level.
I am eternally grateful to her for being a role model to me.
The last time I saw Bisi was in Cape Town at the Iziko National Gallery in 2018. Listening to her speak I was struck by how funny and naughty she was and had so openly taken risks in her career. She was a woman who had stepped into her power and was able to stand in the fire unapologetically with her choices and therefore she was transformative.
She was fun, with impeccable taste, and knew of little gems in the cites we visited across the continent. It was exciting to jump into a taxi together and drive out and seek artist studios in Bamako, incredible silk scarves weaved in Addis and drink coffee and have a good laugh.
– She was a comet of profound proportion.
Abraham Onoriode Oghobase
In October 2018, a friend posted a congratulatory message on Facebook for the opening of my solo exhibition in Lagos entitled Layers of Time and Place: What Lies Beneath. In what would be one of my last exchanges with Bisi Silva, she commented on the post:
(“Looks interesting. So sorry to miss this major show – a landmark in Abraham’s career – as I have been following his work since the beginning nearly 20 yrs ago with his first solo at Goethe institute. Wow how time flies. I can see the leaps he has made and we continue to talk of course especially from the beginning of this project. I remember my Asiko like critique was brutal. Am like bobo you dey dream o! You never start. Ah beg find your way to Jos. Hahahah!!!! One of the most important artist/photographers coming out of Nigeria with a serious conceptual underpinning. Wishing him the best.”)
This message reflects the relationship I had with Bisi. She was a curator of excellence but also my mentor and a generous human being at heart. Bisi was generous not just with resources or connections but with ideas and encouragement which enabled me to articulate the ideas and philosophy that formed the basis of my artistic practice.
In all of this, Bisi never asked for anything in return. She seemed to be on a life mission to guide the next generation of Nigerian and African artists and thinkers to compete on a global stage. There are not many selfless people like Bisi in this world – she gave of herself to others in significant ways. This is not something I will ever forget
Nancy J. Hynes
Writer and Editor
I first met Bisi in 1995, when we both were spending too much time in the AAVA archives doing postgrad research. In the febrile atmosphere of the UK-based Africa 95 festival, we critiqued notions of Africanness, the European gaze and post-modernism in curatorial practice. She believed in the value of research and publication, and spoke passionately about the need to locate institutions – libraries, archives, exhibitions, forums – on the African continent. Although she could have stayed in London and had a comfortable career, she chose to return to Lagos, putting her ideas into action by founding the CCA, Lagos.
She was consistently supportive of women in the artworld, giving encouragement, commissions, and sharing her contacts and ideas. Through Bisi, I met the Nigerian photographic collaborative Depth of Field, leading to an exhibition at the South London Gallery as part of Africa 05. In 2009 I reviewed Contested Terrains, a collaboration between the CCA, Lagos and Tate Modern, London with events planned at both institutions – reflecting those conversations over library tables in the 1990s. Just one small example among many of how Bisi inspired us by realising her ideals within the world, and never accepting that something wasn’t possible simply because it hadn’t been done yet.
Visual Artist, Art & Culture Producer, Curator
Director of The Nlele Institute Lagos
My first encounter with Bisi was during a photography exhibition organized by the Goethe-Institut (Nigeria) in 2006 after an intensive three-week workshop in Lagos. The exhibition was aligned to coincide with the football world cup competition in Germany in 2006 and was titled Football Worlds. I was then new to photography and felt privileged to have been selected by Goethe to be nurtured by the renowned Berlin based Nigeria photographer Akinbode Akinbiyi. I was then going through a steep learning curve and was excited by the prospects of my newfound profession. I managed to produce some intriguing photographs during the workshop and was amazed by my exploits with just three months into my new career.
Chriss Aghana Nwobu (a mutual colleague) made the introductions. “Hello Okpa”, he said as he introduced me to Bisi. “Meet Bisi, she’s a curator and founder of the Centre for Contemporary Arts Lagos”. That introduction was the start of a long critical working relationship. Bisi had liked my work on the football series and was even more impressed after learning that I was still a newbie. This achievement was all the more remarkable considering the August group that I was associating with at the time which included the likes of Andrew Esiebo, Abraham Oghobase, Otuke Charles Ologeh, Janet Nwose (Asa’s manager), Chimela Azurunwa (now a Nollywood actor) and several other emerging artists.
Bisi’s critical and discerning view on my creative process was initially a shock but I was soon endeared to her for her honesty, and professional approach to work and curatorial practice. This laid the foundation of a great relationship until she passed away in February of this year. In my early days a scheduled briefing with Bisi was no mean feat! You have to know your stuff inside out and be prepared to take on a barrage of questions that would truly test your mettle! You do not come to her with an indifferent attitude; your eyes must always be on the ball! I still remember one occasion in 2009 when she sent a message to the Black Box photography collective (the collective was established as a result of the 2006 workshop and exhibition – Football Worlds at the Goethe Institut Nigeria). Bisi had managed to squeeze out a few invites for the group to exhibit at the 10th Havana Biennial in Cuba and wanted to ‘drill’ the members to ensure that we were up to scratch, savvy and well informed. So, a portfolio review of the group was arranged.
The session had most of the members in attendance and proceedings eased off to a good start. But true to form Bisi upped the tempo and tension within the room. She questioned our thought and work processes, our motivations, project ideas and so on. Looking around the room, I could see most of my colleagues were tensed, some were perspiring, and others fidgeted. The tension was palpable and we were put through a rigorous interrogation process. And I must say that this singular incident (and it’s verifiable) led to some of the group members abandoning photography as a career choice.
We did eventually travel to Havana because Bisi believed in us and her recommendations paved the way enabling contacts and alliances to be forged with partners overseas. The incident in Bisi’s office became a watershed moment that helped to propel my developmental trajectory as a photographer.
That same year (2009) I won my first Seydou Keïta Award and the Fondation Blachère prize at the 8th edition of the Rencontres de Bamako in Mali. From thence, the Bisi ‘spirit’ and element have been evident in my development as an artist. This can simply be summed up as the perseverance for one’s aspirations.
In 2010, Bisi launched an experimental school – Àsìkò. It was a short residency titled ‘On Independence and the Ambivalence of Promise.’ The project involved some of the finest artists practicing in Nigeria including the likes of Ndidi Dike, Jelili Atiku, Aderemi Adegbite, Richardson Oviebo and Lucy Azubuike. And from other African countries were Landry Mbassi (Cameroon), Sabelo Mlangeni (South Africa) and Mauro Pinto (Mozambique). She brought together a very cerebral faculty comprising renowned curators, critics, and artists which included the likes of Akinbode Akinbiyi, Philip Pirotte, Carrie Schneider and others. Bisi used the first Àsìkò School in refining the processes for learning and the reciprocity that attract creative minds. Her influence paved the way and made it easier for me to make the right connections. It was at this point (Àsìkò, 2010) that I met Philip Pirotte in Lagos. Philip was then an adviser at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. He suggested the idea of applying for the 2011/2012 intake after my session with him at the Àsìkò School portfolio review. I would not want to go into details of what transpired from then on with my family until I walked through the front gate of the Rijksakademie. But nonetheless Bisi was as encouraging as ever, facilitating and ‘plotting’ my development.
When I initiated the Nlele Institute in 2013 after concluding my residency at the Rijksakademie she became my muse with regards to programmatic activities at the Institute and yearly, had a debriefing session with her – this year being the only exception.
There are many more cherished experiences of Bisi (all for the good of the arts in Nigeria) but I cannot mention them now due to the limit set for this engagement (for which I suspect I have already exceeded). But I will not fail to mention one particular event in 2015 when I won my second Seydou Keïta award at the 10th Rencontres de Bamako. Bisi was the artistic director and curator that year. Her professionalism was unalloyed in her dealings with me from my application to the very day I was announced the winner. But Bisi had no hand in it (as most people would think). However, her ‘spirit’ had a hand in it – as strange as it may seem. Her spirit has always aligned with mine and in that realm, there was a mutual understanding, trust and care. And yes, it can be argued that she was pivotal in launching my career and above all saw to it that I continued to aspire for the goals that she cherished. It was Bisi’s professional dedication, charisma and kindness that lured me, a food scientist/engineer, to a completely different path, made it easy for me to pick up a camera, found my voice and discovered a new language.
It is fair to say that I owe her much gratitude for the professional guidance and care. She will never be forgotten and will continue to live in our hearts. I know that her generous spirit will continue to guide all that I do for the arts which I know were dear to her heart.
Curator, Founding Director of aPOSteRIORi, a non-profit curatorial platform
I met Bisi Silva in 2000 at the Dakar Biennale. In 2000, she was just starting to conceptualize what would become CCA, Lagos. We became fast friends. As a colleague and a friend, we shared similar perspectives on contemporary art in Africa and the Diaspora. We also had many lively discussions and critical views of international exhibitions that we visited, among them the Grand Tour 2007 (Venice, Kassel and Münster) and many editions of the Venice Biennale. Thanks to her, I took part in the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale in 2009 that was curated by Gabriela Salgado, Bisi Silva, and Syrago Tsiara. It is impressive to have witnessed her many achievements as a curator, director, cultural entrepreneur. In less than 20 years, she successfully changed the field of contemporary art to make it more inclusive and dynamic. Bisi was an inspiration. I do not know any other person with her type of ambition, insight, wit and sense of humour. It was a real privilege to have known her. Bisi’s spirit will live on in the memory of all she has mentored, helped and inspired!
It was early 2015 when the whirlwind known Bisi Silva came to my gallery in Port Harcourt Nigeria, Boys’ Quarters Project Space. Did I say whirlwind? She was, in fact, a veritable hurricane of energy and ideas. She shared the story of CCA Gallery, talked about her plans for tenth Rencontres de Bamako and berated artistic complacency. Utterly frank, sometimes even brutal, exacting and exhilarating. Bisi took no prisoners and told it like it was. A wake-up call to all arts practitioners. We all learned something that day. After her talk we went outside for some well-behaved photos with all the artists to formally document her visit, but it quickly devolved into what can only be described as an anthropophagic selfie orgy. Which Bisi loved. It was manic. Everyone whipped their phones, cameras and Ipads out and took selfies with her and took selfies with people taking selfies with her. All revolved around Bisi and reflected the energy she injected into our space that day.
She not only curated high profile shows but she also did the hard grassroots intellectual and practical work in Africa. She demanded that arts practitioners ask a lot of themselves. That they read, read, read. That there should be a healthy critical culture. She wanted the absolute best for African art and she asked a lot of it. She would never be happy to see it rest on its laurels delivering unchallenging work that moved nothing. Exactly the energy needed. She laid the groundwork for a strong, healthy and rigorous African art world. It is truly devastating that she is no longer with us and her fire, power and uncompromising vision will be sorely missed. Rest In Power Bisi and the knowledge that you quietly moved mountains. Thankyou.
Sandra Mbanefo Obiago
Founder and Artistic Director of SMO Contemporary Art
Bisi was irreverent. She coloured outside the lines. She questioned and stood for a truly contemporary interpretation of all we consider art. She was passionate about documenting pioneer artists, the creative ‘weavers’, whose contributions made a powerful impact on the flow and pattern of all we consider African art today.
Bisi generously shared her insight about art with the global community. My husband and I had many animated conversations discussing art from Mozambique, Cape Verde and other far flung corners of our beautiful continent. Her depth of perception and analysis was always refreshing I remember she spoke out at many of our events, with her deliberately slow intonation, reminding us about the need to document our rich art history before our titans pass. She encouraged a lot of young photographers through the Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography, while documenting pioneers like J.D. Okhai Ojeikere for the world to recognize. She curated exceptional exhibitions of giants like Prof El Anatsui, whilst quietly researching the lives of forgotten female art pioneers. She applauded innovation and experimentation amongst a vibrant generation of artists in Nigeria. When I produced my film, Red Hot Nigerian Creativity, she gave me a fantastic interview and over the years mentored a rich crop of “ubercreative” artists, many of whom we have worked with including Jude Anogwih, Taiye Idahor, Kelani Abass, Yinka Akingbade, Victor Ehikhamenor, Ngozi Omeje, Uchay Joel Chima, and Kainebi Osahenye.
I remember the day she opened her Centre for Contemporary Art and library in Yaba. Her months of planning and preparations were being threatened by the ubiquitous electricity issues we all battle daily and she cried out in frustration. Ndidi Dike, Valery Edozien, and I encouraged her behind the scenes and what was a difficult birth, grew into one of the most important centres of contemporary art and experimentation on the continent. CCA was her brainchild and grew into a fruitful sheltering tree for the creative community. CCA became a springboard of professional empowerment for so many across the continent through her Àsìkò Series, her exhibitions, workshops, and artist talks which always challenged the status quo. Bisi was a true African, speaking out in perfect English, French or Yoruba, always sporting unique accessories and fabrics which she picked up on her many trips across the world. Bisi had her own style. She had a gigantic intellect and a clear vision. She was solid and centred. Her legacy lives on in the work and stories of those who were lucky enough to be mentored by her.
I was privileged to work closely with Bisi Silva on several occasions. She was tough, passionate and dedicated not only to arts and artists, also to its development at home and in diaspora. She labored for this course up until her death in February 2019.
She was so special that her name is permanently etched on every heart she shared paths with. Bisi paved ways and created opportunities for scores of young Africans; either through Àsìkò, the experimental art school or mentorship classes and exhibitions.
I am so proud to be a part of that history and will strive to see her legacy linger.
Even in death your name still brims fire, may your light continue to shine brighter.
Director, Sakshi Gallery
Bisi Silva first visited Mumbai as jury member of the third Artes Mundi Prize. We stayed in touch spending many hours in happy laughter and bonhomie over the years, across many continents. She curated Chance Encounters- Seven Contemporary Artists from Africa in 2009, for my gallery in Mumbai and Taipei, introducing El Anatsui and other African greats to the Indian and Taiwanese audience. It was through her that I got to know and appreciate contemporary art from Africa.
There was much intelligence and maturity that came through in our conversations, but what will live in my memory is her joie de vivre and resounding laughter as we sat at the dinner table in our home, late one night along with El. It shall remain one of the most memorable evenings for me. Adios Bisi.
Artist and Professor of Art History, Head, Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos
Bisi occupied a special place in the development of the contemporary arts of Africa. In Nigeria her part was felt tremendously. She saw possibilities in the impossible and gave her all in the development of arts that emphasised experimentation, research and shared knowledge through artists talks and exhibitions. The Centre for Contemporary Arts, Lagos (CCA Lagos) was a revolutionary space which transformed and impacted the careers of several artists and scholars who encountered that centre. She provided the platform for both local and international engagements in the arts and truly made Lagos a thriving and vibrant art capital.
In the past promised dreams were the only things that mattered where Nigeria was concerned. Dreams of a different type of nation, of better days, of change. Over time dreams have been replaced by realities. Some realities have aligned dreams, others have become something new and different, but crucially, dreamers have been able to dream and see reality emerge in the face of difficult circumstances and pragmatic choice-making. Bisi showed that it did not matter if dreams meant sacrifice, that transition was inevitable if any type of viable life was to be lived. The emergent fundamental question is whether dreams will continue costing precious lives in the face of what dreams demand.
Bisi Silva was my friend, and I thought she was insane going back to Nigeria to set up CCA. I accept she was right, I am proud of her being right, and the consequence she has wrought in the lives of many is staggering, even as I still gingerly hold on to my position. Bisi was brave enough to dream, bold enough to go after her dream, and strong enough to make her dream reality. She gave everything to what she believed in, and I am angry and hurt it took that much.
Head of International Collection Exhibitions, Tate
There are so many things I admired about Bisi. Many people can be outspoken and tenacious, thoughtful and generous, but few have the vision to channel these qualities to better the lives of others and make a real, lasting impact.
Bisi’s life was cut cruelly short, but she accomplished so much in the time she had; helped so many of us become better curators, art historians, writers and artists. She held us to account. I didn’t know her as well as many others. I only had the opportunity to work closely with Bisi twice, but I often found myself asking what would Bisi think about something I was doing, decisions I was making, the language I was using. My only regret is that we didn’t tell her enough during her lifetime how much her work meant.