African art: colours of a continent

This year, the UAE’s premier art fair is tapping into the global recognition of the vibrancy of modern African art by exhibiting a selection of its most interesting practitioners. Vision caught up with Bisi Silva, the Curator in charge of the section, ahead of Art Dubai

“African contemporary art is hot,” the Financial Times announced last year, after the London auction house Bonhams achieved a record US$850,000 for a tapestry by the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui.

Contemporary art from the continent that has inspired masters from Picasso and Brancusi to Matisse and Modigliani is taking centre stage at Art Dubai 2013 in the Marker strand. The curators and artists selected for the event are West Africans working on the continent. Projects of this scale are usually awarded to curators from the diaspora, such as Chika Okeke-Agulu, Okwui Enwezor or Simon Njami, who in turn have a preference of showcasing diaspora artists such as Sokari Douglas Camp, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili.

Many of the artists are new, but this is part of the thrill of coming to an art fair: to discover and engage with something out of your ordinary routine

Bisi Silva, Curator

Bisi Silva, the Nigerian curator tasked with organising the programme, is the founder and Artistic Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, in Nigeria, which opened in December 2007. She has been tasked with inviting other dynamic spaces across West Africa.

Artistic platform

“The galleries are all trailblazers in their countries,” she explains. “They are often the only ones focusing on experimental contemporary art production and practice while providing a platform for critical conversations. I have a strong working relationship with most of these galleries and have followed their work over the years. I appreciate and respect the consistent and dynamic programmes they implement.”

Silva is among a number of inspirational African curators promoting the continent’s art, such as Raphael Chikukwa, responsible for Zimbabwe’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the late Goddy Leye, the founder of the ArtBakery in Douala, Cameroon, and William Miko in Zambia, an artist/curator who introduced the country’s first fine arts BA programme at the Zambia Open University.

The galleries that have been selected for Art Dubai 2013 support emerging artists and present the work of more established practitioners. “For example, while Espace doual’art in Cameroon has been active for about 20 years, several of the newer organisations, such as Dakar’s Raw Material Company, the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos and the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, have been set up in the past decade. Chab Touré, Director of Maison Carpe Diem, Ségou, opened the only photography gallery and bookshop in Mali in the early 1990s,” she explains.

“With regards to the over-arching theme, ‘Cities in Transition’, it is a broad but topical concept that allows each organisation to approach the idea from their local context. As a collective, it would be interesting to note not only the distinctions but also the common threads that weave through the artists’ works.”

Silva has commissioned five spaces to produce exhibitions for Art Dubai: the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos; Espace doual’art (Douala, Cameroon); Maison Carpe Diem (Ségou, Mali); the Nubuke Foundation (Accra, Ghana) and the Raw Material Company (Dakar, Senegal). More than 17 artists will be participating across these five spaces, including Soly Cissé (Senegal), Ablade Glover (Ghana), Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali), Boris Nzebo (Cameroon) and Taiye Idahor (Nigeria). The featured works reflect the diversity of artistic practice in the region through a variety of media, from traditional painting to lens-based media such as photography, video and sound art, which remain under-represented in the region.

Diverse audience

Being part of Art Dubai is exciting for Silva because she feels that art from West Africa will be particularly well-received and understood in the UAE. “This is an art fair, and we are aware of the context and the opportunity that such a setting affords. Contemporary art from Africa should be presented to a diverse audience. All the participating organisations are experienced cultural facilitators who are bringing museum-quality work tailored to fit the exigencies of the venue,” she says.

As curator, Silva is at liberty to select work on the basis of her personal tastes and preferred genres, or how relevant she feels the work seems in relation to the current times, and/or in the context of each showing and venue. As for new and digital media used in contemporary art, she believes that the technology has brought new perspectives to art and curatorship, but that all new developments come with their challenges. “They add an exciting dimension to the way in which we present and experience contemporary art,” she says. “Curating requires that we respond to the times and to new media.”

Silva acknowledges that the role of the curator is changing in the era of YouTube and that artists are curating themselves more and more. What YouTube has done, she believes, is democratise curatorial practice and erode to a certain extent the role of the curator as the principal arbiter of what is presented and seen.

Silva is excited about the future of art in Nigeria and across the continent, where individuals, artists, groups and collectives are energising their local art scenes, but she believes there is a need to focus more on content as curators and artists. “I wish our governments would consider art and culture to be important enough to develop the infrastructure necessary to allow them to flourish.”

She adds that an opportunity to exhibit at Art Dubai establishes that all-important first point of contact between the Middle East and West African artists, generating mutual interest that will lead to stronger dialogue, cultural exchange and collaboration. She is also looking forward to a vigorous engagement with the visitors at Art Dubai, adding that there is already a lot of curiosity and interest.

“Many of the artists are new, but this is part of the thrill of coming to an art fair: to discover and engage with something out of your ordinary routine. The primary success factor is the level of interest and engagement, but also we hope that all the booths will sell out so that it can be a resounding success,” she says.