Bisi Silva is an independent curator and is founder and artistic director of the CCA, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (Nigeria). She was the Artistic Director of the last Bamako Biennial of African photography in Mali (Oct. 31st, 2015/Dec. 31st, 2015). During her long career she has curated and co-curated various exhibitions such as the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennale in Greece in 2009, and the 7th Dakar Biennale in Senegal in 2006. In 2013 she was a member of the international jury for the 55th Venice Biennale. Silva writes for international art magazines and journals including Agufon, Artforum, Art Monthly, Metropolois M, Untitled, and Third Text, and she is in the editorial/advisory board of N. Paradoxa, international journal of feminist art.
A conversation with Bisi Silva, Founder and artistic director of CCA Lagos (Nigeria)
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: Hello Bisi.
Bisi Silva: Hi how are you?
TC: It’s nice talking to you, do you hear me?
BS: Yes, I can.
TC: I wrote some question for you.
TC: Your curatorial practice has brought you to work in many different places of the world, what is the vision you have of contemporary art today? Do you see any specific trend dominating and somehow standardizing the art scene?
BS: That’s a very wide question. I can only talk about what I find interesting, but I wouldn’t say that there’s one specific thing. Of course, there are current issues which are pertinent, such as the instability, the uncertainties that exist across the world now, whether in Europe, America, across Africa or Latin America. It seems we are in a sort of heightened period of uncertainty and instability and that has an impact on the work that artists produce. But right now, I’m also really interested in how artists are creating works that — besides the social and the political — also engage with the immersive and the sensorial.
TC: I would now like to focus on your most recent projects. Perhaps you might want to talk about them, the way you approach these projects and the issues you are facing when curating them.
BS: The one that I’ve just finished is the Bamako Biennale (Ed. Rencontres de Bamako Biennale African de la Photographie — “Telling Time”, 31th October — 31h December 2015) in Mali, which is the 10th edition of the photography biennale that returned after a four-year gap resulting from the threat to the country’s sovereignty by Jihadists. The Northern part of Mali was invaded in 2012, and over the last four years there’ve been sporadic incursions and casualties. That’s the most specific case, but this also extends to a stronger global instability, whether it’s the protests over the last three years in Brazil, the Black Lives Matter (Ed. BLM is an international activist movement against violence toward black people) in America or the war in Syria.
We can just keep naming and listing the amount of political instabilities and, of course, the consequent results from a social standpoint. “Telling Time”, which was the title and the thematic of the Bamako Biennale, was one way of engaging with the present and the recent past, as well as with this traumatic experience that the nation went through, which is also indicative of the traumas and the instabilities across the world. And also a way of allowing artists to articulate some of these experiences through land-based media, while not only focusing on the present but also trying to understand the past and how the past has an impact on the present and using this to engage with the future. I think it’s an open theme, it’s quite broad, so artists had the possibility to comment it from a multitude of perspectives and this added a richness to how we experience our present, our today and to how we engage with other periods across time, space and geographies; this brought a really interesting discursive element to the project.
TC: Bisi, would you please tell us something about the projects you are following and curating in Lagos, your city?
BS: My approach in Lagos is to really try to engage with the local. Since I’ve been working with CCA — but even more so over the last four, five years — I’ve wanted to really engage more with the dynamics of artistic practice, but also of everyday realities, in Nigeria. For me, this is interesting because of how art from Africa gets homogenized as one country, one place where everything is the same. But It’s not, we need to look at the specificities of each environment. The way art exists in Nigeria is completely different from the experiences and the infrastructures in a place like Mali, for example.
TC: Of course, it’s a huge continent.
BS: Exactly, that’s how it’s articulated outside of the continent. I am always asked “I want to do art from Africa” and I’m like “Where exactly? Be specific.” I sort of demand that specificity, because my experience here is completely different from the experience of the next country.
In our programming we’re interested in bringing a wide perspective. We do international exhibitions, we do regional exhibitions and we do exhibitions that focus on Nigerian artists and issues that may concern them. In the past, we’ve done solo exhibitions of Nigerian artists as a way of giving exposure to artists who under normal circumstances might not be given the space to show the kinds of work that they show, whether it engages with issues around sexuality or around the body, because we are operating in a fairly conservative artistic context.
The gallery system is predominantly commercial, so there is a sort of limit on what they are prepared to show and engage with. We feel that CCA should be a platform that allows for experimentation of media, of artistic practice as well as of critical thought, where we can bring people together to discuss important social and political issues of our time.
As an example, I would like to mention an exhibition we did in 2012, which was focused on Occupy Nigeria. On the 1st of January 2012, the President decided to increase the price of petrol by more than double, maybe 60-70%, and this, of course, had an impact on day-to-day lives that were already quite challenging, whether to buy food, transportation or school fees. This resulted in a nation-wide protest against this increase. Normally, Nigerians are known for going out protesting for a day or two, but — I think for the first time in our history and with the use of social media — this was going to drag out until there was some kind of compromise that benefitted or that was convenient for all parties, spurred on by other revolutions or protests such as the Arab Spring or the Brazilian protests. This also gave us a sense of the people’s power, and Nigerians of all strata of society — rich, poor, middle class, the elites, the intellectuals — everybody came out onto the streets and was prepared to stay out there for as long as it took, and the government saw that we were serious and we succeeded in bringing the cost of petrol down.
Even after that, there were a lot of discussions going on on television, the radios, in the newspapers, and what CCA wanted to do was to respond: I think that’s one of the things we can also do. We don’t have a rigid programming; we also like to be able to respond to what’s happening in the immediate.
With my colleague Jude Anogwih we decided to respond to this moment and provide a platform where we could bring cultural practitioners together to discuss the effect of what had just happened. We invited photographers that would be out in the streets documenting the events to bring the images and we would create a slideshow; we invited Emeka Ogboh, the sound artist who’d collected over five thousand Twitter messages and we showed them in the gallery; we invited the activist and performance artist Jelili Atiku, who had done a performance in the streets, to come and do one in the gallery space. Then we had a panel discussion where we invited lawyers, cultural activists and artists, even people who worked in technology, to come and discuss what had happened. That’s one of the ways we can respond to what’s happening in the immediate in our space and bring it into a cultural arena. We also formed part of the discussions that are going on.
We have other exhibitions that we’ve done much earlier on. We did an exhibition called “Like A Virgin” in 2009 (Ed. 29 January -14 March) with two then emerging artists: the South African photographer Zanele Muholi and Lucy Azubuike, a Nigerian artist that works across the different media, photography, video, painting. This was the first exhibition that really engaged sexuality and the body within the visual art space in Nigeria.
Zanele Muholi is an internationally renowned black lesbian activist photographer who has documented for many years the lives, the joys and the tribulations of black lesbians and the gay community in South Africa. But especially one of her first major bodies of work, “Only half the picture” in 2006, documents and tries to portray how black lesbians have been attacked and even killed within the South African environment, the intolerance that exists within the society, and tries to show that these are human beings just like anybody else, irrespective of their sexual preferences. Within a Nigerian context, that was already a taboo subject.
TC: In many places, Bisi. Even in Italy, unfortunately, this is a taboo.
BS: As a curatorial project, I was bringing these two artists. Lucy Azubuike’s work dealt with the conflicts of tradition and modernity that women have to bare in how they are responding to a culture and a tradition that says a woman must do this, that or the other, while also trying to fulfil her own dreams and ambitions. There is what society wants and there is what you want: Lucy Azubuike’s work is based on these tensions and these conflicts.
I thought it was really interesting to bring these two women’s work together. It wasn’t about being shocking or confrontational but rather about showing the complexities of the lives of women, not only in Africa but across the world. At the time that the exhibition took place in 2009, at least within a Nigerian context, I felt that a lot of women artists were not pushing the boundaries of what is possible to present,, of what is possible to articulate and the complexity of their lives. We have this tradition here of male and female artists taking women as their starting point without engaging with the issue in a critical manner, and for me these two artists represented a strong voice about women’s body but also about sexuality, and even more so about the freedom to be who they want to be. I think this is why this thematic is important, because it’s coming from a very local context.
TC: But it’s international, Bisi.
BS: Exactly, the power of the work resides in the fact that this is something universal. It’s very personal. It’s personal to Zanele Muholi, the experiences that she is documenting could be hers and the same applies to Lucy Azubuike, but, at the same time, they are extremely universal. I think women and anybody from anywhere in the world can identify with these two artists’ bodies of work.
TC: I would like you to also tell us about some of the more recent projects you are curating in your space.
BS: We are now on the 9th year and we are going to be ten next year, ten years of existence. Over the last year, we’ve really been thinking about how we want to move forward, what are the priorities that we want to work on. At the time that CCA was opened, in 2007, there were very few platforms for critical discourse and experimental practices; it was quite rigidly painting and sculpture. There was little room for land-based media, which was our focus: photography, video art, performance art and any other art and installations, anything that was experimental within this context. When we started, there were very few platforms for artists to come and express themselves. But today I’m pleased to say that the art scene has developed, photographers are now considered an important and integral part of visual art. They are getting international visibility and more artists are also engaging with performance art and — of course — video art, as well as with the forming of the Video Art Network (VAN) Lagos.
Now I’m thinking that the priorities that we had six, seven, eight years ago are not so urgent anymore, because other spaces and other platforms have been opened that deal and engage with some of these practices and some of these themes and provide discussion and debate platforms that were almost non-existent at the time. So, we have a really dynamic art scene, which is great. We’ve been thinking about what we want to do and how we want to move forward.
The starting point for CCA was not the gallery but actually the library, the research centre, the resource centre, and we’ve built up over the last eight years the largest, independent, specialized library focusing on visual art and visual culture. So, we want to return to that, to the library, we want to develop critical thinking. We want to think about art history because, although Nigeria is extremely advanced in developing, publishing and writing its own art history, that’s not the case for most countries across the continent. Therefore, we find that over 95% of written content on artistic practice across the continent is actually written in the diaspora, it’s written outside of the continent. It has been the case and it remains the case today, and for me it now becomes a matter of urgency that we, who are working here on a daily basis, who are engaging with the arts on a daily basis — on an hourly basis if you wish — need to begin to articulate our ideas, our visions, our experiences in the here and the now, right here.
We now want to begin focusing on the use of the library as a starting point for what we do, for our exhibitions, our talks, our projects and all these other possibilities of programming. We’re sort of starting little by little, we have already started publishing. Recently, we did a major book on the Nigerian photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, we’ve done a pocket publication on the sound artist Emeka Ogboh. We hope to be doing more publications over the next two to three years. We don’t see publication as just a book, we actually see it as a curatorial platform. How can we begin to explore the printed page as a curatorial platform? As opposed to the white cube, how can we go over and beyond the white cube? So, this is what I’m finding interesting at the moment, and we are working on two or three books.
I’m starting the research for a major monograph on an older artist, so one of the areas is to do major substantial monographs on a modern artist. The first one was on a modern photographer, Ojeikere. I’ve now started research on Demas Nwoko, he is eighty years old this year and has been a practicing artist, architect, painter, sculptor, designer, theatre designer. He is just your all round African art Renaissance man and I want to do a substantial monograph on this extremely important artist — he is a publisher and writer as well. The research has just started, and hopefully we can start working on the book from next year. We spend a year doing the research.
This year we are doing another emerging artist, her name is Odun Orimolade. She had an interesting exhibition at CCA in 2014, the project is “1 Work”, where we invite an artist into the gallery space to create just one work using the whole gallery as the canvas.
Odun was extremely interested, she paints, she does installations, but drawing forms a considerable and substantial part of her artistic practice. She wanted to do one drawing using all the walls of the gallery space. So the publication we want to do will use that project as a starting point to look over her practice over the last ten years. The pocket monograph comes at a critical moment in the artists’ career, where it’s an opportunity to take stock of what they’ve done for it to be reflected in a publication but also to curate the publication. So I am really interested in that, and in doing it the book becomes available to a wider audience that may not come to the CCA gallery space; but also, it’s a document that exists as part of what has been happening within the local art scene. Most of these books are the result of many years of discussions and interaction with the artists and their work, whether it’s studio visits or them showing at CCA or even at other galleries. So it takes a more inclusive and more contextual local context as opposed to something that is sort of more abstract and fits within this homogenizing discourse around Africa. This now becomes a discourse on art in Lagos, art in Nigeria, art in West Africa, art in Africa and international art, because there is this relation, she is showing abroad, she had a show in New York last year with other artists, around drawing. That complexity, the multiple levels of artistic practice and discourse have not been captured in this sort of encompassing focus on Africa.
So, that is one of the projects that we want to work on. At the moment, within the gallery space we have an exhibition on video art which is a collaboration with several institutions, with the Videonale in Germany, so it’s called Videonale in Lagos. It’s a curatorial collaboration between Videonale in Germany and Video Art Network Lagos, as well as the Goethe-Institut Lagos and CCA Lagos. It started with a ten-day workshop with the video artist Theo Eshetu and the Nigerian artist Jude Anogwih doing a workshop with about eighteen Nigerian artists. Then, it was followed by the Videonale exhibition, which brings international video artists and Nigerian video artists together. It’s been shown across two spaces in Lagos, of which the main exhibition is at CCA and another exhibition at Freedom Park. That’s what we have on at the moment. This will be followed by a photography exhibition that is actually touring across Africa. It is an exhibition arising out of a program that curator Simon Njami has been doing for a couple of years. It’s a photography portfolio review — I think it has been going for about seven years now and I was part of it for about five years — and after three years the results of the portfolio review usually is an exhibition. This year, they have three really exciting artists, two from South Africa and one from Kenya: Musa Nxumalo, the late Thabiso Sekgala from South Africa and Mimi Cherono Ng’Ok from Kenya. It was shown during the Bamako Biennial as an “off” and it’s now in Nigeria; it was going to be shown at the Goethe, but we had a slot, and I’m really happy to show it because I’ve worked very closely both with Thabiso and Mimi, who actually were in the official Bamako Biennial exhibition, but both have also been part of the Àsìkò program by CCA, the roaming art school that moves across Africa for five weeks each year.
I’m really happy to be able to host them at CCA and I’m excited about the exhibition, but this is also a way of using it to have different talks and seminars around photography and some of the themes, such as travel, that the work engages with. After that, we have another exhibition with three young Nigerian artists. I’m really excited about it because it’s also the result of the collaboration with the Summer Academy in Salzburg, in Austria. The last three years we’ve been collaborating with them to send a young artist to the Salzburg Academy every year for a three-week residency workshop. After the last participant went last year, we thought “Okay, so we have sent three artists there, what do we do next? What do we do with this program? How can we do more?”. We’ve decided to have an exhibition with the three artists, not so much to present work but to share the process that they developed whilst on the residency, to talk about how that has had an impact on the work that they are making now. What’s interesting about this is that you have three different artists working in three different media who have been to the same place in three different times. It’s going to be really interesting and I think it’s also educational, because this is very important in what we do in Nigeria, it is still an emerging art market so we can’t avoid engaging that educational side of professional development. And it is for them to share experiences about the possible ways that residencies benefit one’s career; because these are young artists, and sometimes you find a lot of young artists going on residencies abroad or to different countries across Africa or across the world, who just end up jumping from one residency to another without a specific vision or strategy for the residency. Thus, two or three years later, they are not much further off from where they were when they started. Sometimes, some of them go without really knowing what they are supposed to be doing there, because they go in a residency where they just leave you to do your own thing, which may not be the best approach. Some need residencies where there is at least interaction, there is contact, there is feedback more than once or twice. If you are more mature, then of course, you can go in a residency where you need to be left alone because you are already working, you already have a direction that you want to push to the next level. This is an opportunity for the three artists to communicate how this residency has been — as they have said — a turning point in their artistic practices and share it with other artists and their colleagues and their contemporaries. That would be the third exhibition for the year and I like that process, because it also builds on an exhibition that I did two and half years ago to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of El Anatsui, the internationally renowned artist whose bottle-tops sculptural installations have been renowned and acclaimed all over the world. We did this exhibition because I was like “Okay, I cannot afford to do an exhibition of his huge works, our space is not that big and also the insurance cost would probably be my budget for the whole year. How do you engage an artist of this stature within this context?” So I decided to do an exhibition that is more archival and sort of traces the trajectory from the time he left University in 1974 to the present, using all different materials, sketches, drawings, videos, some works that I found in his studio. He was a lecturer in the fine art department for over 30 or 25 years at the University of Nigeria. So I invited three students to reflect that major aspect of his life, but we could also show some of his early works. There was a collector that had some works of El Anatsui from 1975 — that’s a year or two after he graduated from University — and then we showed some of his wooden panels; then I had a tiny piece of work from his bottle-top sculptures, of which we could not have the whole lot; but I thought that we should de-emphasize that aspect, because the journey that got him to where he is today has not been engaged with sufficiently, especially internationally. We showed videos, documentaries, we had the kind of music that he listens to when he is working, the books that influence his artistic practice, images, photographs from over the years.
He keeps everything, for instance he has kept all his payslips from the very first one to the last one, and that is over a thirty-year period. So we showed a payslip from each year he was a lecturer at the University of Nigeria. So, this exhibition that we are going to have with the three students is also about the materials they use. I’m trying to do as many studio visits as I can, because I think that the process of making the work is so important, yet what we get to see in the gallery space is only the end results. Sometimes it is interesting and important to bring aspects of the process into the gallery space and even look at that as art works in their own right.
TC: Bisi, what do you think of this growing interest, internationally speaking, in the production of African artists?
BS: I think it’s great and fantastic, because in most of the countries there is very little infrastructure or opportunities to present work professionally, there is little or no funding to make the kind of work that you want to make. The international interest is sort of shining the spotlight on the work these artists are making. A lot of artists work in isolation for many years, producing work that they don’t show. Here is an example: when I was introduced to Lucy Azubuike’s work through El Anatsui, she was a student at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. When I went to see her work, she was doing a body of work on menstruation called “Menstruation Diaries”; she had been creating these works for about seven years and had never shown it to anybody, I think only to El Anatsui. He once said “go and see this artist, she is doing some interesting work” and when I did I was like “Wow! This is incredible, at least within our context” and I’m like “Where have you shown it?” and she goes “What do you mean, show this? I’ve never shown it to anyone else, I’ve never shown it publicly.”
And I said “I want to show this, this is so important.” I know there are hundreds of artists like her, creating work that they don’t show. Another recent one, last year, is the young photographer who came up to me and said “I’m creating this other body of work, can I show it to you? Because I don’t know if I can show it publicly”. She showed it to me and I thought “What’s wrong with it?” and she said “you know, I am naked in it, it’s naked images” and I’m like “So what?”.
But sometimes they don’t know, because they are not in a context that allows that kind of discussion, maybe it’s not as supportive as it could be. It’s really important that they can show their work. Otherwise it remains very insular.
TC: Bisi, just a question. You said that they are isolated, right? So how do you think they get the inspiration to produce their art works or to become artists?
BS: When I said isolated I meant isolated from what’s going on in the wider world because, of course, art has always existed in all cultures.
When I say isolated I mean in the sense that in very few countries you may not have platforms for discussion; where they do exist, it’s just about focusing on painting and lovely pictures, which is also — like I said — one of the reasons that led me to set up CCA: so that more experimental artists could have a platform where we could engage their work, talk about the work and the subject matters, without being judgmental. When I decided to organize “Like a Virgin”, a few people saw the works and they were like “Bisi are you sure you should be doing this?” and I’m like “What?”.
You have all this religious intolerance going on. When we had the opening of the exhibition, I was really scared because homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria. I did this show in 2008, and when I was organizing it I wasn’t thinking about any laws, I was just doing my job, which is to show great artists,but then, when I did research, I am like “Let’s check what’s going on here with regards to showing this work,” Zanele’s work. And I am like “Huuu, I could be arrested, I could be shut down”. So I sort of panicked a little bit.
TC: Of course! And what happened? Did they do anything against the exhibition?
BS: No, nothing happened, but that’s the context in which I was working.
TC: Did any kind of politician come to visit the exhibition?
BS: Nothing. The politicians are not really interested in art. In a way, it’s great that they are not interested because we can do this exhibition, but it’s also problematic, because it means that they are not supporting the arts. For every good thing, there is a bad side as well.
TC: So Bisi, you said that politicians are not involved; so how do you get your support for CCA?
BS: Through international funding. We apply to foundations that support cultural practice in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So you have the Prince Claus Fund, you also have to work with people like the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, the French Institute. If it’s an American artist, we can work with the American Embassy, the Cultural Department. You have a couple of Embassies that also help with cultural programming. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes there is no funding. So I’ve got this program going on but I don’t even know when and if it is going to be funded or not. We work in a very precarious situation, but we had times when we’ve been very well funded and we were able to do great exhibitions. For example, we did “The Progress of Love”, in 2013, where we collaborated with the Menil Collection and that was really good. There was even funding for artists to create new work. So that was nice.
TC: What about the space? Is it provided by the public community there or do you have to rent it?
BS: The government doesn’t fund anything, nothing at all. I just look for funding through patrons, sometimes we generate a little income if we sell a work. So, I just have to get on with it, find strategies.
TC: Was it an idea of yours to open this space?
TC: Wow. Very courageous of yours.
BS: I’m really lucky because I have really committed, dedicated colleagues and we all sort of have the same vision of what it needs to be done; we just get on it, which is really great. We have a lot of fun, we have learned a lot, it has been really really fantastic.
TC: Ok Bisi, I think that you have been also very generous with me. Thank you Bisi.
BS: You’re welcome, thank you so much.
This conversation took place with no video to eliminate possible Skype connection problems. The use go all attached images was kindly authorized by Bisi Silva and the artists mentioned in the interview.