An exhibition titled Women’s Work: Crafting stories, subverting narratives sought to puncture the distinction between art and craft.
Held at the Iziko South African National Gallery in December 2016, it comprised work by 23 artists and five women’s co-operatives and traced the development of different ideas and techniques such as knitting, embroidery and beadwork.
The exhibition contemplated the lens through which society views and judges work created by women. Men’s contributions to the arts and to other fields are celebrated whereas women are expected to overlook their own erasure quietly.
Representation is a way of expressing power. By choosing what to represent and how to represent it, value systems are revealed. Women’s contributions to the production of culture, creation of artistic knowledge and the shaping of the art ecology remain largely sidelined and unacknowledged.
It is for this reason that the job of documenting women’s contributions should be taken seriously, lest their labours disappear.
One such woman whose contributions toward structural changes in the art landscape cannot be ignored is Bisi Silva. She is a Lagos-based independent curator with a career spanning more than two decades. She is the founding director and curator of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, an independent organisation that provides a platform for the development, presentation and discussion of contemporary Nigerian visual art and culture.
The centre also promotes the professionalism of production and curatorship in Nigeria and West Africa. It fosters collaboration among artists, curators, writers, theorists and national and international organisations.
The centre has a collection of more than 500 books, catalogues, brochures, journals and videos documenting art from Nigeria and the rest of the continent, drawing attention to new voices and building local histories of art in living archives.
Silva has curated numerous exhibitions. She served as artistic director at the 10th Bamako Encounters in Mali (2015), co-curated the Dak’Art Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporain in Senegal (2006) and acted as juror at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013).
In 2010 Silva founded Àsìkò, a pan-African roaming art school. Àsìkò, which can be loosely translated as “time” in Yoruba, addresses various themes that shift across temporal registers, investigating relationships between history, aesthetics, the materiality of art, as well as documentation and archival practices.
Àsìkò focuses on integrating theory and practice and seeks to create new models for radical art education with models that will foster reflective art and make it relevant to local contexts.
With six chapters in five African cities (Lagos, Accra, Dakar, Maputo and Addis Ababa) over a six-year period, the list of people Àsìkò has encountered is extensive and includes Taiye Idahor (Nigeria), Gladys Kalichini (Zambia), Ndidi ODike (Nigeria), Portia Zvavahera (Zimbabwe), Euridice Kala (Mozambique) and Jackie Karuti (Kenya). This range of influential African artists points to the inter-generational, intra-continental and interdisciplinary nature of the connections the art school has been able to foster.
It continues to grow. The 2018 chapter is due to take place in the Cape Verde city of Praia between August 13 and September 16 this year.
Silva’s work in reshaping artistic and curatorial pedagogies in Africa runs parallel to work by other women artists, curators, researchers and creators on the continent.
In Johannesburg it is Gabi Ngcobo, the curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art and founder of the Centre for Historical Re-enactments, a platform that explores legacies and their effect on contemporary art.
In Ghana, the Accra-based writer, art historian and filmmaker Nana Oforiatta Ayim founded ANO, a nonprofit organisation that aims to uncover the cultural narratives of the African continent.
Elsewhere on the continent, Senegal’s Koyo Kouoh founded Dakar’s Raw Material Company,a centre for contemporary art and art education that uses visual art as an instrument for social and political transformation.
All these initiatives create space for self-representation, the redefinition of authorship and sites for critical discourse in the art sphere in Africa.
New ways of organising continue to emerge for the production and display of the discourse about global art.
The past is unfolding, borders are compressing and art practitioners are re-examining local connections in a global context, finding approaches that reintroduce depth into art.
A spirit of exploration and experimentation is in the air,drawing interesting and enriching stories forth. Women continue to act as powerful organising agents, fostering spaces for connections, examining single narratives and cultivating curiosities. Their contributions are deeply etched and cannot be erased.