Written by Sean O’Toole
Like many Nigerians, Bisi Silva spent most of March 2015 plonked in front of a television set. Her country was going to the polls; pundits were predicting trouble.
In the event, Goodluck Jonathan, the man who since 2010 had been in charge of Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, conceded electoral defeat to his political rival, General Muhammadu Buhari.
Nigeria’s transition to a new political order progressed without hitches.
“It is just the most fascinating period I have ever experienced in Nigeria,” says Silva, a prominent art curator and key figure in Lagos’s transformation as a city at the forefront of new ideas about contemporary art.
Silva was still recovering from a marathon 36-hour stint in front of her television when we spoke. Not that this diminished her good humour or talkativeness.
“When Jonathan called Buhari to concede defeat, there was this extraordinary calm,” continues Nigerian-born Silva in an impeccable London accent, the outcome of more than two decades spent living in the English capital.
“It was as if people stopped breathing. You could hear a pin drop – and Lagos is one of noisiest cities in the world.”
A stout woman in her early forties, Silva is one of today’s most commanding voices in contemporary African art. She owes her authority partly to her stellar work with the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos.
Founded in late 2007, six months after Jonathan became vice president of Nigeria, this independent visual art space is situated in a nondescript building in Yaba, a busy market area on mainland Lagos.
Now occupying two floors, it originally comprised a library that doubled as a meeting space.
When it opened, Lagos lagged behind more vibrant scenes in places like Dakar and Cape Town. Wealthy private buyers dominated taste and were, in the main, betrothed to modernist painting.
Photography was still a journalistic practice without an art audience.
There were no specialist art magazines. “It was very commercial and traditional,” summarises Silva, who returned to Lagos from London in the mid-2000s. “It was conservative and lacked dynamism.”
Silva, whose ancestry includes repatriated Brazilian slaves – hence the unusual surname – quickly recognised that a library and conversation space wasn’t enough.
The people she was engaging in her space needed to make “direct contact” with the works they were reading about in magazines and books.
So she decided to open an exhibition space: “To show artists in real life what the possibilities are, as well as encourage a younger generation of curators and exhibition organisers to develop more experimental strategies”. Her launch exhibition set the tone.
Titled Democrazy, it featured album covers by legendary musician and Lagos refusenik Fela Kuti.
However, it was a 2009 exhibition featuring South African photographer Zanele Muholi and Nigerian sculptor Lucy Azubuike that really marked a first milestone. Titled Like a Virgin, it delved into a taboo local subject: sexuality. Silva laughs uproariously while parsing details of the pair’s exhibition.
“It was a really divisive show. There were a lot of objections to Muholi’s photographs of her menstrual blood.”
A posh friend hurriedly tiptoed out of CCA in disgust without even saying hello. Other friends sighed, “Bisi! Menstruation! Really!?”
Gratuitous provocation is not Silva’s style as a curator. Take her 2012 group exhibition The Progress of Love. A transatlantic collaboration with the Menil Collection, Houston, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St Louis, the show included films and photographic work – again by Muholi, and also by two Nigerian artists, photographer Andrew Esiebo and filmmaker Adaora Nwandu – dealing with homosexuality.
“I spent six months agonising about showing this work,” recounts Silva.
At the time Nigerian lawmakers were debating a bill criminalising same-sex relationships; Jonathan would later sign the bill into law, in 2014.
“One morning I woke up and decided it was okay. I just had to be careful to frame the works.” Drawing on the conversational spirit on which CCA was founded, she held a public talk to coincide with screenings.
The exhibition proceeded without outrage or incident.