Olabisi Obafunke Silva: In Memorium (2019)

Without a shadow of a doubt, Olabisi Obafunke Silva (commonly known as Bisi) was one of the most important independent curators based within the continent of Africa, and working across the continent, and beyond, up until her recent untimely passing last February.  It might be somewhat inadequate to describe Silva as an “independent curator,” as she had established an initiative of ambitious scope, based in Lagos, Nigeria, that was recognized as a critically important project of great benefit to significant constituencies, in Lagos, Nigeria, West Africa, Africa, and spaces and places beyond. The project was the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), which functioned as a gallery, library, archive, and center of learning, debate, conversation, and exchange. This she had pretty much established single-handedly, an effort reflective of Silva’s drive, energy, commitment and heightened sense of intellectual engagement. We would be hard pressed to find any independent curator elsewhere in the world with such a singular range of achievements.

Problematically perhaps, we have grown accustomed to benefitting from a particular proximity to exhibitions, debates, and scholarship on contemporary African Art, taking place as they so often do, away from the continent itself, in cities such as London, New York, Washington DC, et cetera. We now take it for granted that it is through the manifestation of the occasional exhibition, and the presence in Britain, the US, and other countries of scholars of African Art, that modern and contemporary African Art is validated. We tend to give little or no thought to the relative paucity with which the African continent gets to host and engage in debates about, modern and contemporary African Art. Silva made the most astonishing, considered, and energetic intervention into this problematic, by operating out of CCA Lagos, thereby creating, in Lagos at least, the circumstances whereby Africa can more substantially avail itself of what its own modern and contemporary artists are doing. Though based in Lagos, for Silva, “international” meant as much about working in Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique or Mali, as much as it might be working in cities in Europe or the United States. Silva was, consequently, a truly global operator, well able to bring all manner of international – as in Pan African or global, perspectives to her work as a curator.

Born in Lagos in 1962, she secured her undergraduate degree in France, with her formal training as a curator taking place in the early to mid 1990s, when she was among one of the first cohorts to enter London’s Royal College of Art Visual Arts Administration Master of Arts Programme (now called Curating Contemporary Art), a pioneering initiative that trained ambitious young curators for the world of work. Thereafter, Silva worked for several years as a London-based independent curator, establishing a project known as Fourth Dial Art, “a non-profit intercultural organization committed to the development, production, presentation and distribution of the visual arts.” Fourth Dial Art’s four aims were to provide a public forum for the critical examination of ideas and cultural practices in the visual arts; to encourage original, innovative activity that is truly concerned with radical ideas about society and culture especially as they relate to the rest of the world; to provide a platform that encourages and promotes the artistic creativity of young and establishing artists; and, to research, develop and collaborate with art institutions and professionals in the presentation of the visual arts.

… Silva has left an extraordinary legacy that has many sides, though perhaps chief among them was her ability as an enabler. She passionately believed that there was much to be valued in the presence of modern and contemporary artists across the continent of Africa, and as much as the continent’s emerging and established practitioners had every right to be represented in biennales and exhibitions around the world, she served as a powerful advocate for them to have their work seen, appreciated, and engaged with by audiences in cities across the continent.

The above extracts are from an obituary, 'Olabisi Obafunke Silva: In Memorium' by Eddie Chambers, for Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art,  November 2019, Number 45, November 2019: 4 - 6.

See also https://www.eddiechambers.com/black-british-art-histories/