On the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos

When I was in Nigeria last year members of the National Gallery, who’s archive and library I had come to use, pointed me towards a gallery that had only recently opened and housed a well equipped up-to-date library. So I went to Yaba and after a bit of searching – the place was still new and, of course, neither the taxi driver nor any of the people I asked on my way through the immediate neighbourhood knew the place – found the best equipped art library I had seen since coming to Nigeria. But probably more important than the library, the Centre of Contemporary Arts is still alive and kicking and Bisi Silva is promoting contemporary African and Nigerian arts worldwide. – If you want to know a bit more, start with her blog. Anyway, now the effort, talent and energy going into the project have been acknowledged by Next Magazine:

Bisi Silva’s Art Place

By Obidike Okafor, 26 June 2009

When the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) opened its doors in 2007 for its first exhibition, ‘Democrazy', a show displaying the works of the trio of artists, Lemi Ghariokwu, Ndidi Dike and George Osodi, it only marked the beginning of a stream of exhibitions and programmes that have brought over twenty five speakers and drawn international collaborations.

"I feel we have packed five years of programmes into these eighteen months," said Bisi Silva, curator at the CCA.

The journey to the promised land where CCA stands, started out as a teenage fascination from Bisi Siva, stimulated by images of the Incas civilisation from Peru.

She grew into a woman armed with an MA in Curating and Commissioning of contemporary art from the Royal College of Arts in the UK (she is also believed to be the only curator in Nigeria with a professional qualification in curating contemporary art, and the first in Africa).

"Starting my space has always been a personal and professional dream, I did not know when or how it will become a reality. It was when I decided to take that leap of faith to start in an environment where there is little or no funding for the arts and almost nothing for those who want to set up projects that deal with art," she said.

The status quo "remains embarrassing for a nation such as Nigeria, with one of the largest and richest heritage in the world. Successive ministers of cultures have not been able to build a befitting cultural infrastructure even during the oil boom. It shows a total disregard for who we are and what we can be."

In trying to break uncharted areas in the art world, the curator felt that there were few avenues for critical discourse. So, like a scientist experiments, discovers and develops, Silva set out to create a space that like a laboratory will allow artists to develop themselves, experiment on new ideas and interact with colleagues from different parts of the world and the African Continent.

"There was nobody out there for the teeming population of artists who needed to keep abreast of what is happening in other parts of the world," she said. Thus, the CCA was born.

Curators are not exempted from CCA's searchlight, as Silva constantly tries to use the centre to raise the bar for curatorship. "Curating is not about bringing artists together and knocking paintings on the wall," she insisted.

"Curating is a highly complex undertaking which involves the ability to articulate profound ideas about a society in which we live, whether historically or contemporary; the ability to engage with the past and communicate it with the way it impacts not only on the present but the future; and to find artists who are not compromising conceptual depth and artistic output."

Tucked away in a corner of the Sabo area of Yaba, the CCA which doubles as a gallery and library, is far from the fashionable stretch of galleries that dotted the Victoria Island side of Lagos. "We are an educational establishment and not a commercial gallery," Silva maintained.

"Besides that, there is the never ending traffic and of course the very high cost of rent." Yaba will do just fine for the CCA, it seems. The curator believes the location is perfect for a major percentage of the centre's target audience.

"This includes students (three of the nation's major citadel of learning are located at Yaba). "We show works that raise questions and compels the viewer to find answers," she said.

The centre's library started with books from Bisi Silva's own library and grew with the addition of titles purchased as well as those donated by International organisations. "Interaction with the library has not been great," she said, suggesting the virtually nonexistent reading culture in the country.

"It's true that few artists have made use of the wealth of publications that exists in CCA library. I can only presume that they have personal libraries or they don't read and don't keep up with developments, which is most likely. The results are there for you to see.

"A stagnant artistic scene in which the repetition of the same artistic strokes is the rule and not the exception and which contextual superficiality prevails unchallenged." she added.

This year alone, the CCA has embarked on projects to give more visibility to African artists and also generate income for long-term sustainability. Their first port of call was the Johannesburg Art Fair, where they were the only African based organisation outside of those located in South Africa.

Featured artists for the CCA were from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Nigeria, Turkey and South Africa. Next was a collaboration with the Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, India, with an exhibition of works by artists including El Anatsui, Uche James Iroha, Nnenna Okore, Moroccan Safaa Erraus, and others from Zimbabwe and Gabon.

Bisi Silva is satisfied in the belief that there are tangible results to the CCA's activities. Based on exposure acquired by Emeka Ogbo at the Video Art Workshop held at the CCA, he recently featured at the Venice Biennial. Uche Joel Chima will also head off to a video art residency in Holland next year.

Performance artist, Jelili Atiku, has already exhibited in Japan. In October 2009, the Centre for Contemporary Art will hold its first ever video art exhibition; participating artists to include some of those people who have benefitted from the centre's initiative over the last 18 months.

Sharing what she feels will be the next step for the centre, Bisi Silva said, "The advantage of being a small organisation is that we can run faster than others with our ability to look inwards for inspiration and our global reach. The organisation will continue to mutate, all things being well."

2010 promises to be an exciting year for the CCA. Silva called it "a landmark year in the history of Nigeria. 50 years of independence; and CCA will be asking who we are and who do we want to be, through a diverse programme that explores art, fashion and post colonial identification."


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