Ask the Curator: Bisi Silva

Founder and Artistic Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, Bisi Silva has curated several major exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad. She has also written on contemporary art for several Nigerian and international publications including ThisDay, Art Monthly, Untitled, and Third Text. Silva is on the editorial board of N Paradoxa, an international feminist art journal and is the guest editor for the Africa and African Diaspora Issue of N.Paradoxa. Recently appointed as Artistic Director of the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, she sheds light on its theme Telling Times, as well as its contributions to the development of contemporary photography in Africa.


Congratulations, you’ve recently been appointed Artistic Director of the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters. Why was the theme Telling Time chosen and what new direction can we expect from the biennale?

Thank you, I am excited about the possibilities. In engaging the idea of time, I think Mali is an appropriate place. Its long and glorious history is fascinating—a contradiction of its present situation. My research on the country has taken me as far back as the 3rd century to the beginning of the Malian Empire with Sundiata Keita through Mansa Musa arriving in the 20th century, to the writings of historian Amadou Hamphate Ba. Through these histories, one traverses over long stretches of time, space, peoples, of empires and of memories.

However, the theme principally came out of the recent political and social upheaval that Mali experienced in 2012, the deepening crisis of the Boko Haram situation in Nigeria, which is now becoming a regional problem, the people’s uprising in Burkina Faso, as well as the devastating
effects of Ebola especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In addition, my visits to exhibitions, studios, as well as my conversations with lens-based artists on the continent and internationally, have alerted me to the fact that artists are increasingly preoccupied with matters of time. As well as its conventional division of past, present, and future, a significant dimension of time has to do with questions of duration, scale, and event; of how the past slides into the present, how one’s understanding of time shifts according to its contexts, and how artists are increasingly working within multiple temporal scales.

And of course, we all know about the notion of ‘African time,’ which is often invoked to describe the pace and flow of everyday life. I think this can also constitute a potent form of inquiry. But importantly in considering time, the 10th edition of the Bamako Encounters is a landmark moment in the project’s history, and provides an opportunity to reassess the past 20 years and the exponential growth of photography across Africa, as well as to propose new possibilities for the biennial.

Do you agree with critics that the biennale shuns a deeper reflection on the medium of photography itself?

The biennale has worked extremely hard towards developing a platform for the reflection on photography through the continuous improvement of the catalogues in which it documents the artists and
several projects that have taken place. Over the years, it has had programmes for art journalists and critics from across Africa and published a daily newspaper. The seminars and conferences have been an
integral aspect of the biennale, all in a bid to develop reflection and discourse.

Much has been done and achieved and our goal is to take these initiatives further. However, this kind of
undertaking is a slow progression because if one understands the history of photography across the continent, many of the required infrastructures are still not available. In addition, for many years, Bamako was the only platform that prioritized photography. Outside of South Africa there is not a single course on fine art photography at degree level let alone at postgraduate level. The same goes for the history of African photography. Even Nigeria, which boasts of several departments of fine and applied art, does not include photography as a terminal course in its programme. This is extremely problematic. The majority of
photographers from the continent are self-taught, most working in isolation for many years. In spite of the proliferation of photography on the continent, the language of photography, its critical engagement and also the vast possibilities inherent in the medium are yet to be fully grasped and implemented.

With the overwhelming response to the Kickstarter campaign to fund your monograph on iconic Nigerian photographer, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, would you say that photography from Africa has finally come of age?

I would say it has been a humbling beginning, which still has a long, long way to go. I remain worried when I go to bookshops around the world and there are few and sometimes no books on African photography, let alone monographs. That is not to say it does not exist. Prominent South African photographers are published and some of them have more than one or even two monographs and luscious publications to
their credit. But the reality is that 99% of African photographers are not available in group or solo publications.

Kickstarter was in a way, an act of rebellion, and of resistance because I found it extremely difficult to find a publisher, internationally for the publication. If it was so difficult for such an internationally renowned artist like Ojeikere then I dread to think what it would be for lesser-known artists. The Kickstarter only covered about a third of the costs, but it allowed us to go for highest quality printing available. But more than that, it allowed us not to be dictated to in what we need to do and who we publish.

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