Bisi Silva (1962–2019)

Bisi Silva taking part in Fran Cottell’s “Collection of Curator’s Heads” (2005–07), in London. Photo: Terry Watts.

I FIRST MET BISI SILVA in 1995, when she joined me to organize the 1996 conference for the British chapter of the AICA and the accompanying book, Art Criticism and Africa (Saffron Books, 1997). By then, Bisi had graduated with her master’s in curating from the Royal College of Art. Throughout the 1990s, in London, she established herself as a freelance curator and critic, which was no easy task.

We frequently discussed the many misconceptions of contemporary art from Africa as well as how people are positioned as being “from” a place when speaking “to” a rapidly internationalizing art world. Our longer conversations focused on how to be productive “between” places, how to generate meaningful dialogue across networks, and how to foster new long-term initiatives with one’s available personal resources and energy. What Bisi achieved during her lifetime was her responses to these dilemmas.

Bisi was critical of limited initiatives of “art from Africa” for Western consumption where nothing was returned to the continent. She was equally critical of the unevenness of research by curators on local art scenes across Africa, the absence of published art histories, and instances where colonialism was reinforced, even after years of independence and struggle in nascent democratic states. She traveled extensively throughout the continents of Africa, Europe, and the Americas, bringing her knowledge of these places back to Lagos or London and then out into the world.

Her first major project, from 1999 to 2000, was bringing six international curators and critics to Nigeria, including me, for a tour of lectures to initiate a new discussion around contemporary art. This principle of professional development continued through her most extensive project of the last decade, the Àsìkò workshops which since 2010 have brought together artists, critics, and curators in Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Addis Ababa, and Maputo for five weeks at a time. 

Bisi will be remembered internationally as the founder and director of the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos, which was a labor of love and a realization of her strategic commitment to supporting contemporary African art. CCA Lagos is unlike any other art space in Nigeria because it offers public access to a unique and extensive library of contemporary art alongside programs in curating, publishing, and education. This progressive nonprofit was her private entrepreneurial venture for Lagos: In many other cities worldwide, it might have been a state-funded kunsthalle, an endowed art foundation, or an artist-run space. It was none of these. Bisi—who spent time working on her own curatorial and writing projects at the Menil Foundation in Houston, the Museum of Photography in Helsinki, and the Bellagio Residency program in Italy, among others—reinvested fees from her work abroad in CCA Lagos. Her development of CCA in Lagos was timely and important.

In 2013, she guest edited a special issue of n.paradoxa on “Africa and its Diasporas.” Within its pages, the question of “from” and “to” joined conversations on feminism(s) while exploring African influences in Brazil, exchanges between Brazil and Congo through Portugal, Afro-Caribbean diasporas in Europe, and women artists’ works from across the continent. She also published a series of books on contemporary African photography and a major monograph on the Nigerian photographer J.D. Okhai Ojeikere (CCA Lagos, 2014), and was planning a history of the first decade of CCA Lagos.  

Friends and colleagues are now working on ways for CCA to continue without her. Her extensive network will miss her friendship, and the ways she encouraged others’ endeavors while finding the strength to pursue her own.

Katy Deepwell is founder and editor of KT Press and n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal and professor of contemporary art, theory, and criticism at Middlesex University, London.