Bisi Silva is the founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos. The centre promotes research, documentation and exhibitions of contemporary art in Africa and abroad. Silva who has curated varied and diverse works is always curious about history, culture, what is happening around her and in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and India. It was her passion for history and culture that drove her to do what she is doing. She speaks with FLORENCE UTOR about her beginning and successes.
How did you come about art?
Most of my life I schooled abroad, England, UK. I did secondary school there, and then, went to a university in France. I studied languages with history of arts as option. I later went back to England for Master’s in curating of contemporary arts at the Royal College of Arts, UK; so, I am a professional curator. I took options in art history and in doing that I did history of arts, 1815 to1950, and, of course, came across people like Picasso and African arts. It was my coming in contact with Picasso that pricked my curiosity in learning more about him, his works and the influence of African arts on European modern artists.
Do you know that, the cubists movement of the early 20th century was influenced by traditional African arts and it had a pivotal impact on Western arts and that’s what one really calls the modern era of European arts. It is really interesting to know that it was actually African arts that changed the whole course of arts in the West; so, for me that was really fascinating. When I returned to Nigeria, I thought the art scene could be more diverse because what was happening was mainly commercial exhibition in galleries where we had lovely paintings and sculptures that people want to sell, but there is another side to arts, which includes critical engagement and discourse, and I felt that aspect was being neglected.
There was little or no curatorial practice, there was no professional curators organising important exhibitions, showing the diversity of artistic practices that was not limited to painting and sculpture, but include photography, sound arts, performance, installation and other mixed media arts. This diversity was absent from the art scene till I came in 2002 and the difference is that, today, we have a very dynamic, vibrant and diverse artistic scene that engages the global art world. We also have the global art world interested in what is going on in Nigeria, so, you have this exchange going on both at the local and international levels.
Do you think we are where we should be?
No, I don’t, but I think we are working towards it.
CCA was set up almost 10 years ago, has it achieved its aims?
I think it has. When we started 10 years ago, there were very few of the kind of work that we show, but today, everybody is doing that and we also contribute to the creation of a vibrant, dynamic art scene. We now have so many art galleries, so many spaces, so many initiatives, which is absolutely wonderful.
You published a book on the late Pa Ojeikere, a notable photographer; are the youths showing any interest in photography?
I think what is important about the works of Okhai Ojeikere is the fact that it shows us in ways that we don’t see ourselves, it shows us that we have a history and a culture that are really beautiful and I think, we sometimes get so stuck in our day to day activities that we forget to look at who we really are. I look forward to seeing a situation where any Nigerian or African will look at the work of Pa Ojeikere and he/she will begin to feel the pride and joy I feel every single day I look at his works.
What can you say is the disparity in number of male and female in the arts; how can more women be encouraged to go into it?
I think all over the world, women have been made invisible; they have been marginalised to a certain extent, but today, we have more female artists who are doing very well. I think they need to be more confident in what they are doing; they need to make sure that their voices are heard, they need to organise and collaborate with each other because there is strength in numbers. They need to document their work, so that, they are not written out of history, which is very important.
How would you access Nigerian school of arts via the preparedness of students produced?
It’s unfortunate that education in Nigeria has been completely destroyed. The youth that are coming out of art schools are not prepared for the 21st century; unfortunately, they are intelligent and creative, but in the schools their potentials are not been harnessed and consolidated, so, by the time they leave school they actually don’t know what they are capable of doing. Our school system has completely disappointed us, I am disappointed with it as a curator; I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t have a solution to what’s going to happen, but the school system need to be fixed. I don’t know what the lecturers are doing or why they do what they are doing or don’t do, but I wish they show a little bit of generosity.
How would you convince young people that they could actually live a good life from arts?
To make a living from art, one has to be passionate about what he/she does. For instance, I could never think of Baba Bruce Onobrakpeya doing anything else, but what he does because you can feel the passion, you can see this is a man that has dedicated his life to his art. He started as a teacher at St. Gregory, even though he had a degree, but the average art student will not want to be a teacher. They are too big, but being a teacher is a humble job because you are being generous; you share your knowledge with people. If Baba Bruce is selling today, it is because those students he taught in school are now big men and women, so, anywhere he exhibits, they will turn up and buy his works. Most young people don’t understand that and they go about hustling. It is about the inner ability, being true to yourself and to the art; one cannot deceive art? If you think you can, go and ask all the artists that have dropped out because they thought they could make a fast buck. Look at Ella Natr from Nnsukka, when did he start becoming famous? Maybe in the last 10 years, this 70-year old man has been working, teaching and helping his students, but today, he is one of the most expensive artists in Africa. Most artists cannot do anything else than art, because they are committed to what they are doing and when you have that passion it means you believe in what you are doing and sometime, some day, the reward will come.
After Ojeikere’s book, what’s next?
We are doing other publications. I want to focus more on writing and creating important books. Asiko, the PAN African roaming arts school that we did for six years from 2010-2016, took us to five different countries in West, South and East Africa. We engaged over 90 participants, artists and young curators from least 15 countries across the African continent. We are doing a very interesting publication that goes beyond documenting what happened, but a publication that acts as a curatorial platform for ideas and artistic curatorial practice.
How does arts help you express yourself as a person?
I found out at a really young age that I seem to understand the world better through arts. For me, arts is a form of knowledge and communication; some people like reading novels, but I like to look at arts to learn about the world. Arts lift my spirit, it says something about the world we live in, about the society we live. I am sure you know the works of Jelili Atiku, they are very political; they proffer situations to current challenges. There are other artists like Uche Joel who talks about the environment, Charles Okereke that talks about pollution and the wind and many others that talk about topical issues.
If you have an opportunity of doing something else, would you leave arts for it?
I have no regrets being in the arts; I will do this over again. I am absolutely committed to what I do; maybe I am one of those few people who are actually doing what they love. I have no regrets at all, it has even surpassed my wishes, I have always wanted to learn about other cultures, travel, see the world and my job allows me to do all these; so, no regrets.
Any advice for new artists?
I think they should learn to be generous, focused and curious. Every artist needs to be curious, they need to observe everything they see, they need to ask questions about everything they see and it is not necessary that they will get answers, but sometimes in looking for the answer they might find a solution that works for them, not only in their lives, but in their work. I am a curious person; my curiosity gets on everybody’s nerves because I want to know why someone used yellow, what was he/she thinking as of the time the colour was used. I would want to know why the floor is blue and why the sun is rising there; nothing is too big or too small because one day you might find an answer that makes something click, which makes it amazing, because life is amazing.