Bisi Silva: Untimely passage of an outlier

Nigeria’s visual art and curatorial field mourn one of its leading lights, the curator Bisi Silva, who died on February 12, 2019.

THE outpouring of grief over her untimely demise has, understandably, been unending.  The late curator and founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, Bisi Silva, was a warm, cerebral and dedicated professional who gave all of herself to the promotion of the arts and empowerment of artists in Nigeria.

When news of her passing broke on the evening of Tuesday, February 12, many were aghast that the bell had tolled for the passionate promoter of contemporary arts and artists who threw open the doors of her centre to all manners of ideas and people untimely.

From humble beginnings in 2007, the CCA evolved to become one of the significant contemporary-art hubs in Nigeria, hosting essential exhibitions and encouraging collaborations among artists, curators, writers and national and international organisations.

The fact that she spread so much love and knowledge in her lifetime but died two days to the Feast of St Valentinemakes her passing much more painful and a shock to family members, associates, friends and art lovers whose lives she had positively touched with her love and passion.

Though some few people had known about her battle with cancer since four years ago and that she had been especially poorly in January, they didn’t expect the end would come this soon. Many had subsequently treated the news of her demise as a rumour until the CCA’s Associate Curator, IheanyiOnwuegbucha, formally announced it.  “With a deep sense of loss, we regret to announce the passing of our Founder and Artistic Director of Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Olabisi Silva who passed away on Tuesday 12 February 2019,” he said in a statement.

The confirmation finally brought home the fact that the curator, sister of actress Joke Silva and mentor of several young visual artists and journalists was, indeed no more. Torrents of tributes have since been flowing for the outlier.

Renowned textile artist and gallery owner, Chief (Mrs) Nike Okundaye, who is in Belgium, expressed her shock at the news, writing: “I am profoundly shocked to learn of the demise of our good friend, Bisi Silva. She was an epitome of art and culture in this great country of ours, Nigeria. And she was a wonderful inspiration to all young and old in the arts sector. We will miss her dearly. May her gentle soul rest in peace.”

Writer and editor, Molara Wood said: “Terribly sad. Terrible. This was a very focussed arts curator of unerring seriousness, very sound. We didn’t have many like her in visual art. This is a huge blow to visual art and the curatorial field in Nigeria. I respected Bisi Silva, everyone respected her. She made immense contributions, and her founding of the Centre for Contemporary Art at McEwen Street in Yaba did much to transform art discourse. Rest in peace.”

Other nationals have joined in mourning the outlier, who gave a fillip to visual art in Nigeria and built bridges outside her shores.  Commenting on Twitter, Mpho Matsipa wrote: “Today was a profound loss for the art world and Africa in particular. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to thank you for all that you do and the inspiration you’ve been. Rest in peace, Bisi Silva.”

Writing on the same platform, Alice Tomdio said: “RIP #BisiSilva. An incredibly talented curator with a wonderful eye for amazing art. Indulged me so many times with my novice knowledge. Ever patient and generous with her mind and love for all things art. Life is so fleeting…”

Shari Ankomah is among those that acknowledged Silva’s sterling qualities. “Truly shattered to hear of #BisiSilva’s passing after battling cancer. She was such a warm, witty and humble human being but most of all a visionary for visual arts in Africa. We’ve lost a giant but what an ancestor we’re gaining,” she wrote.

And it’s not only individuals that are mourning the curator, who trained in France and the UK before relocating to Nigeria in 2002. Institutions are also lamenting the demise of a worthy and selfless collaborator. The German Cultural Centre wrote: “Goethe-Institut Nigeria mourns the passing of Olabisi Silva, a visionary and dependable ally in the arts community. Ms Silva was a leader, advisor and consistent collaborator whose informed opinion on the global art scene was well-respected. Her experience, network and knowledge as a curator, teacher and mentor has benefited individuals and organisations alike with many young artists attributing their breakthroughs to her and her ground-breaking Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA-Lagos).

“Always bristling with ideas and infectious energy, Ms Silva has left a void that will be difficult to fill.  Goethe-Institut remains committed to supporting her legacy and passion for the arts through ongoing and future partnerships with CCA Lagos. Our condolences go to Ms Silva’s family, and to the visual arts community at large. She will be deeply missed. May her soul rest in perfect peace.”

The Holland-based Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development also lamented her passing, stating that,  “We are saddened to learn of the passing of Bisi Silva, independent curator, founder and artistic director of the CCA, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (Nigeria), and friend and an adviser to the Prince Claus Fund. She will be greatly missed.

“Silva was an independent curator and founder and artistic director of the CCA, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (Nigeria)…She advised the Prince Claus Fund for many years. In 2016 she curated the exhibition ‘El Anatsui: Meyina’ at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery as part of the Fund’s 20th Anniversary. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.”

The UK based Pew Arts & Heritage also wrote: “We are saddened by the news that Curator Bisi Silva has died. Bisi visited the Center in 2017 to discuss her curatorial practice.”

Born in 1962, Silva gained her first degree in Foreign Languages in Paris, France and a two-year MA in Visual Arts at the Royal College of Art in London.  Her curatorial practice extended beyond Nigerian shores. She, amongst others, served as Artistic Director at the 10th Bamako Encounters in Mali in 2015; co-curator of Senegal’s Dak’Art Biennale in 2006 and juror at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. She also curated the 2009 edition of the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece. Her writings appeared in publications such as ‘Artforum’, ‘The Exhibitionist’, and ‘Third Text’.

Apart from the CCA-Lagos, Silva also founded Àsìkò—a pan-African, roaming art school with a mission to integrate theory and practice, seeking to form new models for primary art education with models that will foster reflective art and make it relevant to local communities in 2010.

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