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Questions of Practice: Bisi Silva on the Contemporary Curatorial Practice in Africa

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Curatorial practice as a sort of defined, professional discipline is extremely new in most places. New to the point that one can actually talk about numbers, small numbers, across the continent, not only in Nigeria. Because in many countries, the infrastructure hasn't been there to support curatorial practice in the traditional sense that it's understood within an international context.

The museums that exist in most African countries focus more on classical African art. So you find that the curators in the museums have backgrounds in classical African art history, in anthropology, in ethnography, in traditional musicology. So the idea of contemporary curator is a recent phenomenon. And, you know, the very few have had, I would say, a long history of curating. But that doesn't mean we don't have people who work in contemporary art organizations. They are.

Some might even-- though they are curating-- may find it sort of uncomfortable calling themselves curator in the real sense of it, even though that's what they've done for over 10, 15, 20, 30 years, even. But within the continent, you have people like myself who have returned to Nigeria, to Africa, from Europe, to contribute to the art scene locally. And within that context, I want to talk about Àsìkò. Àsìkò is a pan-African Roman art program, art, and curatorial program. And we've been including young, emerging curators in the program.

So basically, I would say that we are probably the only informal training program for curators. A couple of the universities, such as in South Africa, have been providing over the last, sort of, 3, 4, 5 years. MA's in curating. I know that Ghana has just started last year, a program in curating. Hopefully Nigeria will also start.

So it's really, you, know very fragmented, very embryonic at this stage, but extremely exciting. But I think what's really key is that they have realized that, you know, curatorial practice goes beyond exhibition organizing. But now you have some of these curators who are really doing the research going out there, meeting the artists, doing the documentation, and thinking about themes and how they develop their ideas, and the kinds of artists that are dealing with those issues that they're also interested in their research.

So that's extremely exciting. And I think that that's the way that it has to go, because they also help artists in developing their own critical thinking, but also their research methodologies and their conceptual strategies. So I think in the next five years, you know, we can really begin to talk about a visible curatorial practice that emanates out of a local discourse.

In 2016, we spoke with Bisi Silva, a curator based in Lagos, Nigeria. She explained that, until recently, an infrastructure hadn’t been in place in most African countries to support contemporary curatorial practice as a profession. “The idea of a contemporary curator is a recent phenomenon,” Silva said. “Very few have a long history of curating—and some might find it uncomfortable calling themselves a curator, even though that’s what they’ve done for years.” But things are starting to change across the continent as professional training and university programs emerge.

Watch Silva discuss consideration of “the local” and “the global” in curatorial practice.

Bisi Silva was an independent curator based in Lagos, Nigeria. She was founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA), and served as artistic director of ART X Lagos Art Fair—West Africa’s first international art fair (2016). Silva co-curated The Progress of Love, a transcontinental collaboration between the Menil Collection, Houston, TX; Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis, MO; and CCA (2012–13), as well as the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Greece (2009). Silva passed away in February 2019.