Bisi Silva: going beyond the normal workshop practice in Africa

Interview with Bisi Silva by Marian Nur Goni

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Independent curator and art critic, founder and director of Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA, Lagos), a centre promoting contemporary art opened in December 2007, Bisi Silva discusses the latest international art photography workshop held there in February-March 2010.
Based on the 2010 theme « On Independence and the Ambivalence of Promise », this
workshop aimed to innovate in the field of workshops held in Africa by placing the accent on the theoretical and critical thought offered to artists.

Can we discuss the International Art Photography Residency Programme, organized and held at Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos from 8th February – 6th March, 2010? What was the initial idea behind this very ambitious project with regard to the current situation of art photographers in Africa or, if you prefer, in Nigeria?
I prefer to talk about Nigeria, as it would be impossible to speak for the whole continent. CCA, Lagos has decided to focus on a specific art form each year. In 2008/9 we focused on video art which involved a one-week workshop in collaboration with the Oneminute Foundation, and a two-week workshop, « Linha Imaginaria », led by Angolan artist Miguel Petchkovsky and co-facilitators Goddy Leye (Cameroon) and Eustaquio Neves (Brazil). This was followed by the first professional international video art exhibition in Nigeria, curated by emerging curators based at the CCA, Lagos: Jude Anogwih and Oyinda Fakeye. The final part was the first Video Art Publication co-ordinated by Antawan Byrd, a US Fulbright Fellow and curatorial assistant at CCA, Lagos. We were extremely happy with the success, continuing results and interest in this sustained focus on video art. Consequently, this year in 2010 the focus is on art photography. Photography has a vibrant, dynamic tradition within Nigerian contemporary art practice. Whilst the tradition of studio, street, documentary and photo-journalism are well-embedded within the system, there are few, if any, conceptual practices. The absence of formal instruction in photographic or any new media practice at tertiary level is problematic, leaving many artists little room for development or causing them to go abroad. For the art photography residency, we wanted to go beyond the normal workshop practice prevalent in Africa: one in which a group of artists come together for two weeks, creates work and then goes back home or on to the next workshop. We wanted to try something more dynamic and innovative. Something that would give a new lease of life to current workshop formats which we feel are not dealing with contemporary needs and the realities of working within a global context. Creating work is just one module of a much larger totality. This first attempt was curatorially driven in collaboration with Finnish curator Aura Seikkula and also placed substantial emphasis on the importance of in-depth research, critical thinking and intellectual engagement as an integral part of one’s artistic practice: aspects that are missing in most tertiary institutions that offer fine arts and in most, if not all, workshops conducted on the continent. The residency was not targeted specifically at photographers but at artists working across different media using the image as a point of departure. CCA, Lagos believes in dialogue and cultural exchange that engenders deep thinking and interaction. It was the right opportunity to bring Nigerian and African artists into contact with their colleagues from around the world and to bring the world to Nigeria. The residency has had a profound impact on every individual that took part.
The program announced lectures, seminars, portfolio reviews, and group critiques… How did it take place concretely? Did each curator suggest a kind of work module to the artists?
Within the programme we had a structure which was open to interpretation by the facilitating artists and the visiting curators. The weekly structure required participants to do five-minute presentations of their work to the workshop leaders and visiting curators. Over the course of the thirty days, they had to do this over six or seven times. Once a week, we organised twenty or thirty minute individual portfolio reviews with the workshop leaders and visiting curators. This allowed the participants to present their work to at least two to four professionals on a weekly basis. At the end of each week, the work created was developed in collaboration with the Pictureworks Extra photo lab based – conveniently – in the same building as the CCA, Lagos and the end of the week finished with a group critique about the work and ideas that were being developed. Each week, artists were given critical texts to read which formed part of their weekly seminar session. Each week, participants also had to prepare a five to ten minute presentation on an artist whose work has influenced theirs or whose work they like. We encouraged the participating artists to look outside of their comfort zone by also presenting artists’ work from South America or African countries other than their own. Many artists found this and the portfolio review to be very beneficial. In addition, the facilitating artists gave in-depth presentations of their work, their methodology and also the work of other artists who interest them. The visiting curators gave presentations of artists’ practices in their countries as well as about their curatorial practice. Some of these lectures were open to the public. For all the participating artists, it was the first time they were taking part in portfolio reviews, giving several presentations of their work and the work of others and interacting with so many curators.
You mentioned photographic processes. Beside the critical sessions, did artists produce a piece of work during the workshop?
The emphasis was less on producing work, and more on engaging with diverse possibilities and ideas. Some did produce a piece; others put together images they toyed with during the workshop. What was interesting for us is that everybody produced the beginning of an idea. It would be premature to call it a piece of work.
Who were the participants and how did you choose the curators and photographers involved in the project?
The participants included ten Nigerian artists (Aderemi Adegbite, Adeyinka Akingbade, Jelili Atiku, Lucy Azubuike, Ndidi Dike, Chidinma Nnorom, Iria Ojeikere, Richardson Ovbiebo, Folarin Shasanya, Uche Okpa-Iroha, and William West) who were selected from an open call. Two African artists were invited from Cameroon – Landry Mbassi – and South Africa – Sabelo Mlangeni. The curators (1) and photographers were chosen by my co-curator Aura Seikkula and me and from our network of artists and curators. The project is also part of a continuing collaboration between Finnish curator Aura Seikkula and me following on from our first project in Bamako 2007 presenting contemporary photography from Finland.
« On Independence and the Ambivalence of Promise » is the theme of the whole CCA, Lagos programme for 2010. How did it articulate with this Residency Programme?
It was articulated in a variety of ways, including the participant artists’ delving into the past fifty years and the trials and tribulations that the country has experienced. In so doing, questions of tradition, history, culture, and of personal and collective identity came to the fore through some of the artists’ experimentation. For example, Iria Ojeikere did a video art tribute to his father, the internationally acclaimed photographer Okhai Ojeikere using the work Onilegogoro (skyscraper) to reminisce about the art and craft of traditional hair braiding which is being lost as well the lost dreams the nation had at the onset of Independence. Uche Okpa Iroha developed a project on the symbolic meaning of the Nigerian Flag. Adeyinka Akingbade did a work on the perennial blackouts we experience as a metaphor for the failure of governance. Another fascinating aspect was that the guest artists and guest curators also engaged with the theme in their presentations. Artist Senam Okudzeto presented « Ghana must Go: Personal Narratives, Identity, Identification and Research », which explored personal memory and the way in which it affects one’s identity. It was a fascinating account of her experience of what was a very important and traumatic historical period for many Ghanaians – who we considered our cousins – when the Nigerian government asked them to leave Nigeria within 48 hours resulting in a mass exodus. Philippe Pirotte, director of Kunsthalle Bern, and one of the visiting curators, gave a brilliant presentation of Belgian painter Luc Tuymans’ body of work about Independence in the Congo, Miwana Kitoko, and the Belgian king’s controversial visit to the country (the first by any member of the Belgian royal family). Nigerian photographer and researcher Tam Fiofori also gave an illuminating presentation on History, Culture and Nigerian Photography, going as far back as the late 19th century and the work of A.J Green through to the early studio photographers of the 20th century and to the modern pioneers such as Ojeikere in documenting the newly independent nation and the euphoria of the moment to a new generation of photographers such as Akinbode Akinbiyi, Don Barber, Jide Adeniyi Jones and recent practitioners such as the photography collectives Depth of Field and Black Box.
How did you economically manage such a vast workshop?
We received funding from international donors, the major ones being the Nordic Fund and AECID Spanish International Cooperation. We also partnered with local organisations such as PictureworksExtra and Kelechi Amadi-Obi studio as well as El Anatsui’s Afrika Studio and by charging participants a fee. The visiting artists and curators also applied individually for their travel costs from their relevant arts organisations.
Do you think the CCA, Lagos will regularly repeat this first experience?
It is too early to determine if we will regularly repeat such a big and ambitious project. However, it is something we will continue to discuss over the coming months. The possibilities are numerous, as there clearly is a need for an intensive programme that combines artistic practice, critical thinking, curatorial practice and the interaction and dialogue between different cultures. One thing is for certain: interacting with the Lagos arts scene was an invaluable experience for many of the visiting artists and curators and it goes a long way to challenging some of the preconceived ideas of Lagos being an impenetrable environment.
As the CCA, Lagos’s 2010 focus is on art photography, what art form will the next projects be about?
The subsection of the « On Independence » programme is on Art, Fashion and Identity. The first part of this is a solo exhibition, the 2007 ‘Maria’ series by Turkish artist Pinar Yolacan, whose work we successfully presented in South Africa in 2009. This is being followed at the beginning of June by a touring group exhibition « Pret-à-partager », which is the result of a workshop organised by IFA (Germany) on art and fashion held in Dakar in September 2009, involving the work of fifteen African and German artists. It has been touring to different parts of the continent and we are happy to be the Lagos venue in collaboration with Yaba College of Art and Technology.
Finally, as founder and curator at the CCA, Lagos, is there a photography project that you really dream of organizing?
I would be really interested in doing a retrospective exhibition with a great big lush publication of Okhai Ojeikere’s work encompassing over sixty years of engaging with the cultural, social, economic and political transition that is Nigeria.

(1) Akinbode Akinbiyi (Nigeria/Germany); Miriam Backström (Sweden); Giovanni Carmini (Switzerland); Tam Fiofori (Nigeria); Marja Helander (Finland); Jide Adeniyi-Jones (Nigeria); Heta Kuchka (Finland); Simon Njami (Cameroon/France); Senam Okudzeto (Ghana/Switzerland); Phillipe Pirotte (Belgium/Switzerland); Rosangela Renno (Brazil); Carrie Schneider (USA); Mats Stjernstedt (Sweden); Daniella Wennberg (Norway).April 2010///Article N° : 9434

Les images de l'article
On Independence and The Ambivalence Art Photography Residency Feb-March2010. Group Photo of Residency Participants and visiting artists
Participating artists Jelili Atiku, Iria Ojeikere talking with Mats Stjernstedt during residency programme

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