Bisi Silva, an adventurous curator who, with her own money, founded a nonprofit art gallery and education center in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, that has nurtured the growth and recognition of contemporary African artists, died on Feb. 12 in a hospital there. She was 56.
Her sister Joke Silva, an actress, said the cause was breast cancer.
Ms. Silva started the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos in 2007 and made it a hub for bold and experimental sculpture, painting, photography and video and performance art that could ignite local and global interest.
She also curated exhibitions of African art around the world. One, in Helsinki, Finland, in 2011, featured the Nigerian photographer J. D. Okhai Ojeikere’s images of African women’s exotic hairstyles. (She turned that show into a book.) Others showed the work of the Ghanaian-born sculptor El Anatsui in Amsterdam and Johannesburg.
“I wouldn’t call her an African curator, but an international curator,” Hannah O’Leary, the head of modern and contemporary African art at Sotheby’s in London, said in a telephone interview. “She promoted African artists to the world and brought the international art world to Africa, and did it tirelessly. She never did the obvious: Her knowledge and vision were unrivaled.”
Ms. Silva felt that her mission was to change the way contemporary African art was being viewed from a Western perspective and to develop African artists in ways that their schools were not.
“The gaps in the art education system are jarring,” she told Frieze, an art and culture magazine, in 2017. While some West African nations like Nigeria had arts education programs, she called them “a colonial relic out of tune with present-day contextual, stylistic and intellectual realities.”
To fill the gaps, she created the Asiko Art School — actually a series of pop-up schools holding annual, monthlong educational gatherings in various African countries including Senegal, Ghana and Ethiopia, where artists, writers, historians, curators and teachers immersed themselves in seminars, workshops and exhibitions. The events gave Ms. Silva opportunities to evaluate artists’ work.
“Everyone had 15 minutes to present,” Antawan Byrd, who learned art curating under Ms. Silva at C.C.A. and is now assistant curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, said by phone. “She’d be very critical. You had to defend your work and your research.”
Ms. Silva believed that her exhibitions, lectures, workshops, mentoring and educational programs made a positive impact in a short time.
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