Shock waves rippled across the art world. Somewhere in Lagos, last Tuesday afternoon, Olabisi Silva, the founder of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, passed on. She had been battling an undisclosed ailment, which had kept her away from the public’s view for a while. Indeed, Talks about her protracted illness had recently been making the rounds in the art community.
Yet, none seemed prepared enough for the inevitable. For instance, former Goethe-Institut, Lagos’s director Marc-André Schmachtel recalled speaking to her a “few months ago” while “she was still in the hospital in Hamburg”. According to Schmachtel, “her voice was weak, she complained about the German food and was looking forward to getting back to Lagos. Now, she is gone, a terrible loss for her family and for the Nigerian and international art world…”
Actually, it was the Spanish-born architect and art aficionado Jess Castellote who virtually broke the news for many in the art community with his Facebook post: “I’m in shock!!! Bisi had been sick for months and receiving treatment in London. She returned to Lagos a couple of weeks ago…” Also, her elder sister, actress Joke Silva, had taken to her Instagram page where she had posted Bisi Silva’s photograph with the caption: “Thou mastering me, God.”
Then, the tributes poured in! Friends and associates worldwide took to social media platforms to mourn. From the US, the artist Olu Oguibe, who had first met Silva while having his first solo show in London in 1990, concluded an emotional Facebook post with the words: “What a monumental loss! What a monumental loss! Can’t hold back the tears even in this public internet café! What a terrible, terrible loss!”
Back in Lagos, the Arthouse Contemporary Limited in its official Facebook page described the late curator as “a phenomenal woman”, thanking her for her “contributions and dedication [to] the advancement of the Arts”. Nike Monica Okundaye, who owns the biggest art gallery in Lagos, sent in a message from Belgium, where she had gone for a Bonhams auction exhibition alongside two other Nigerian artists. She expressed her profound shock on “the passing of our dear associate.
Then, the US-based Professor Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie in his blog described her as “the greatest change agent I knew” while the African Artists Foundation said in its official Facebook page that it was “deeply saddened by this news”, expressing its gratitude for “the opportunity to experience her light in this world.” Also, the Lagos State Government, through the Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture Steve Ayorinde said: “RIP, Bisi. The arts community will miss you.”
More messages came from galleries like the US-based Axis Gallery, GreenHouse Art Empowerment Centre and Thought Pyramid Art Centre as well as artistic leading lights like Kolade Oshinowo, Moyo Okediji, Chinwe Uwatse, Janine Systma, Cassava Republic’s Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Suzanne Preston Blier, Crown Troupe of Africa’s Segun Adefila, spoken word artist Wana Udobang and Guild of Fine Artists president Sam Ebohon, among others.
Biisi Silva’s influence on the Lagos art scene had been magnificent. Flashback to sometime in 2002. She had returned from the UK, where she had lived and studied, to the scene, which albeit vibrant, was stuck in a groove. Curatorial practice was just a nebulous concept and virtually non-existent. Consequently, the Lagos exhibition circuit was fixated on the traditional media of painting and sculpture. Installation, performance, video and sound art were ignored and deemed foreign. Ditto other mixed-media forms of expression. Even photography still struggled to burst free from the fetters of predictability.
Collaborating with the Lagos-based Mydrim Gallery, she had organised the Institute of Visual Arts and Culture (IVAC) lecture series, which hosted renowned international art personalities. Among these were the British artist and art historian of Caribbean-descent Eddie Chambers, the US-based Nigerian art historian and curator Chika Okeke-Agulu and the Ivorian art curator Yacouba Konate.
Fast-forward to 2007. This was the year she founded the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in the mainland Lagos neighbourhood of Yaba. Then, she had explained that she wanted a place “far from the madding crowd”, in an obvious reference to the fact that most of the galleries in the megalopolis were concentrated around the “Island” neighbourhoods of Lagos Island, Ikoyi, Victoria Island and, to some extent, in Lekki Phase One.
Before that, she had been one of the curators of the Dakar Biennale, called Dak’art, in 2006 and later in 2007 curated two exhibitions at the Seventh Biennial of African Photography in the Malian capital, Bamako.
She would also become a co-curator for the Second Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art in Greece in September 2009. This was the year that saw her, among other things, feature as a curator at the Johannesburg Art Fair. She also co-curated the late J. D. ’Okhai Ojeikere’s exhibition in the Finnish capital, Helsinki in 2011 as well as a transcontinental collaboration across three venues in the US and Nigeria in 2012 and 2013.
On the local art scene, she had curated exhibitions by such renowned artists as Ndidi Dike, George Osodi, Lemi Ghariokwu and Lucy Azubuike, among others.
A former editorial board member of the feminist art journal N Paradoxa, she had contributed to2 several international art publications like Art Monthly, Untitled, Third Text, M Metropolis and Agufon as well as for THISDAY.
As for Ms Silva’s 12-year-old pet project CCA, it has evolved into an institution. Long before her death, she had taken a keen interest in Iheanyi Onwuegbucha’s ambition to become a curator. According to Onwuegbucha, who is now an associate curator at the CCA, he had first met Ms Silva in Enugu in 2014, while he was still working as the festival secretary of the annual Life in My City Art Festival, also known by its acronym LIMCAF. “She asked me about my plans for the future and I told her I wanted to be a curator,” Onwuegbucha recalled. “Ever since, she followed my work and progress. In 2017, while I was studying at the University of Leeds, she called to encourage me and enquire about my future plans. At the end of my programme, she visited me in London and invited me to work with her at [the] CCA, Lagos. That was how Bisi has nurtured numerous young curators across Africa. Always looking out for emerging talents, eager to give advice and encouragements…”
Onwuegbucha also disclosed that Ms Silva, even from her sick bed, “never stopped giving: professional advice, financial support and encouragements to all who needed them. She will be greatly missed by the CCA, Lagos family whom she had nurtured like myself.” He also prayed that “the phenomenal legacy she left behind will be kept and her dream of a purpose-built library for contemporary art will someday be realised.” Meanwhile, the art world continues to reel in shock. For a long time, the memory of this phenomenal art personality, who has impacted on many young artists, will continue to linger.