‘But I wonder, why do we have to be so bothered about the challenges of being received abroad?’ – Q&A with curator Bisi Silva

Bisi Silva was recently appointed the artistic director of the Bamako Encounters: African Biennale of Photography that runs from 31st October-31st December 2015. Startjournal talked to her about her new appointment and her perception of the arts on the continent as curator of Contemporary African art.

By Dominic Muwanguzi

Bisi Silva Photo Jude Anogwih_short (2)
Bisi Silva – Photo Jude Anogwih

Startjournal: Who is Bisi Silva?
Bisi Silva: I am an independent curator and the founder Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos.

Start: Nigeria, your home country, is known for its immerse contribution to the arts on the continent. How did this influence your choice of career as an artist?

Bisi: I am not an artist but a curator. Also I came to art by a circuitous process as I actually wanted to study languages to become a translator or work in the diplomatic service which would allow me to travel and see the world. But whilst at University I took modules in History of Art and that is how the journey began leading to a Masters degree in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London.

Start: What were some of the challenges you faced in penetrating an industry that is largely dominated by men?
Bisi: The challenges I faced were not based on gender but more on how to develop and sustain a new initiative in a context in which few support from government exists.

Start: The debate about misrepresentation of artists from Africa in the West is rife. Do you think artists from the continent are not doing enough to paint a clear picture of what their art is about?
Bisi: I think it is less about how the artists are presenting their work – though that does contribute – but more about an institutionalized form of thinking that marginalizes everything outside of Euro-American purview.

Start: As a curator of contemporary art do you agree to term contemporary African art in the globalized world we are living in right now?
Bisi: It depends on how you want to define the term, but if I am to identify with a term I prefer contemporary Art from Africa with the understanding that it means art that is from across the continent, from this region and is not alluding to some intrinsic value.

Start: The Bamako Encounters: African Biennale of Photography is celebrating photography as an art form. What are still some of those challenges photographers from the continent face to be accepted on the International scene?
Bisi: The 10th Bamako Encounters: African Biennale of Photography is the principal and longest running platform for the presentation of the work of African and African Diaspora photographers and artists to showcase their work to a continental and international audience.
But I wonder, why do we have to be so bothered about the challenges of being received abroad? What about the huge challenges of photographers being accepted across Africa? I think that is where we need to direct our attention. The obsession with being accepted abroad instead of developing the local is almost perverse. I believe that if you develop the scene locally people from all over the world will come to you.
The Bamako Encounters has contributed over the past 20 years to developing photography in Mali, the West African region as well as across the continent. During the Biennale there are international curators, academics, writers, collectors who come to Bamako to see the exhibitions and to interact with the artists and other African Art professionals. If you develop your own art scene – and let people know what is going on – the focus on being accepted internationally becomes less of an issue. I think we should focus on doing high quality programs because if we do it people will come.

Start: The Bamako Encounters: African Biennale of Photography is organized with support from the Mali government. How can the State’s support of arts and culture impact the industry?
Bisi: It is important that the State recognizes the critical role of arts and culture in the development of a country. I really appreciate the gesture of the Malian government who have recognized that with the political upheavals they have experienced recently , culture does and will play a critical role in rebuilding the country.

Start: During the early years of Idi Amin regime in Uganda, the government supported artists by advancing financial grants and sponsoring them to international art forums. This consequently affected the quality of art coming out of Uganda. How can artists maintain their independent artistic voice while being funded by the government of the day?
Bisi: It is a problem that continues today in many countries across the continent and even in other regions. But it is not only government what about NGOs who give funding only to projects that fall within their limited areas of interest. Whilst for artists and cultural workers do need these support for their work, they also must continue fight to maintain their artistic and contextual integrity or at best to reach a mutually beneficial compromise.
I have had the experience where a major oil multinational wanted to spend some of their money on culture and approached to do something around women empowerment and poverty alleviation. Those kinds of issue – whilst they are of personal concern – do not form part of my critical or curatorial areas of research or interest. However that is not to say I don’t work with women, on the contrary the visibility and a profound engagement with women artists form an important part of my practice, but I would never dictate the issues they address in their work.

Start: There are a number of art festivals and workshops happening on the continent today. Is this an indicator that the art scene on the continent is growing or more is needed to be done?
Bisi: It is an indication that the art scene is growing, but a lot more needs to be done because it is still at the embryonic stage. There is a limit to what individuals can do on their own. Many of us have set up small initiatives, but if we do not have the resources to grow, stasis will set in and eventually many will die. An example is Nollywood in Nigeria. The homegrown videos has peaked, and the industry desperately needs a substantial injection of funds to move to the next level. This is happening but very, very slowly. The Nigerian government did develop a few initiatives but what is needed are long-term strategies and not one-off hand outs.

“I worry about the obsession of Ugandan artists to reach out to the globalized art world.” – Bisi Silva

Start: Many artists on the continent find it hard to have their work showcased at international art Biennales like Venice and Dakar. Because of this you find the same faces and their work being featured at these festivals. How can young artists participate in these Biennales?
Bisi: I appreciate the difficulty that many artists have but I don’t think that it is specific to any one field. It happens in all profession. There are thousands of artists vying for very small spaces of visibility. Therefore has to remain focused and consistent and persevere. I think the Dakar Biennale as well as the Bamako Encounters have done extremely well in providing visibility to young artists. For example the 10th Bamako Encounters received over 800 applications of which 39 artists where selected. The  median age group is 30 years and up to 75% are showing at the Bamako Encounters for the first time. We tried to be conscious of including first timers in the selection process. So I do think there is a lot of effort to include young artists sometimes to the detriment and exclusion of a much older generation.
At the 56th Venice Biennale this year, the largest number of African and African Diaspora artists are being shown with the youngest artist being from Ghana. I think the opportunities are opening up and I believe it will get better in the coming years.

Start: Recently Uganda has been a destination to several contemporary art workshops like the Atwork workshop at Makerere in March 2015. How can Ugandan artists benefit from such projects in order to reach out to the globalized art world?
Bisi: I worry about the obsession of Ugandan artists to reach out to the globalized art world. What does that mean? Have they reached out to their neighbours? I think that would be more interesting. We need to know ourselves better. A mentality that thinks West is best is not very progressive.

Start: Who are your best five artists on the Continent?
Bisi: The late Valente Malagantana,(Moz), the late J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere,(Nig) Renata Sadimba, (Moz) Kelani Abass (Nig) and I am particularly excited about the creative practice of Demas Nwoko (Nig) who I am researching at the moment.

Image of Bisi Silva by Jude Anogwih