At the opening of his retrospective exhibition in Ibadan late last year, which was held alongside the launch of the TECH Art Gallery, Abuja-based Sri Lankan artist Imal Silva offered a nuanced message of better times ahead for the nation. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Isn’t that obvious? All puns were intended with the choice of the exhibition’s title, The SILVA Lining—Imal Silva; The Man, His Art, and His Journey. After all, wasn’t the retrospective exhibition, whose opening on Sunday, December 18, last year heralded the inauguration of the TECH Art Gallery in Ibadan, all about the life and work of the Sri Lankan-born social entrepreneur, Imal Silva, in the Oyo State capital?
The exhibition’s offerings, which are a collection of paintings, prints, and photographs by Silva, were produced between 2000 and 2012 when he relocated to Abuja. Silva was just ten years old when he and his mother relocated from Sri Lanka to Ibadan. During his years growing up in Ibadan, where he attended the International School and the University of Ibadan, art practice and its ancillary activities became the theme song of his life. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that he eventually established the Treasures4Life Art Gallery, which is oftentimes shortened as T4L.
Talking about T4L, it was said to have grown in stature as the largest and most active hub for promoting almost 250 artists and providing industrial training for students from four higher institutions in Oyo State. Perhaps based on its success, Silva was motivated to set up the first museum of medical history at the University College Hospital, from the layout to the construction of all the models and exhibition of artefacts, which was a significant use of art in promoting medicine.
Not even the fact that his parents were both scientists dissuaded him from toeing the path of his life’s passion. Neither did this passion fade, even as he eventually graduated from the University of Ibadan with a second-class upper-division degree in biochemistry.
“Art is our constant,” Silva was quoted as saying. “It is our ‘nature’, the genetic make-up we possess and our ‘nurture’, the locations and circumstances we grow up in define our artistic direction. An artist has a responsibility of offering thought leadership to his or her generation. Our artistic journeys, therefore, are both a testament to our diversity and expression individually. I believe as artists we can make it also a collective celebration of our similarities and even our differences.”
Meanwhile, the exhibition’s opening ceremony on December 18 featured a keynote talk by Dr Tunde Adegbola, a renowned engineer and culture champion, titled “The History of Ibadan Art” and focused on the backdrop of Ibadan’s art movements. There was also a presentation by Silva highlighting the programmes and projects he organised while in Ibadan, as well as a discussion panel moderated by the curator, Blessing Bee Azubike, in which he featured alongside Oluwole Omofemi, Tope Fatunmbi, and Dr Mudiare Onobrakpeya.
“When Imal Silva was invited to be the subject of this event,” the curator, Blessing Bee Azubike, recalled, “I thought that it was timely as it marks a decade since his move from Ibadan, the city which shaped him—and it also comes at a time when the dust on the ancient city is being blown off, and its true potential is slowly being unveiled – with articles like ‘The Past Glory is Returning,’ a November 2022 Aljazeera feature.”
Silva’s long residence in Ibadan, the city from whence he set out on his visual odyssey through Nigeria, fostered his artistic career. It was in this southwestern Nigerian city that he not only used art for public engagement but also conducted several workshops and held many exhibitions. These exhibitions were mainly to raise awareness about people with disabilities, voluntary blood donation, and rape and sexual abuse. Mother-and-Child exhibitions, for example, were a popular way to raise awareness about maternal and child health.
Besides his maiden exhibition at his Treasures4Life Art Gallery in 2006, Silva’s other exhibitions in the city included those at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, in 2006, the Golf Club in 2007, the Booksellers in 2007, the National Museum, Ibadan, in 2007, the Polo Club, Ibadan, in 2008, and the Alliance Française in 2008. He also featured at the Talking Drum Festival in 2008, at the Foreign Relations Group, University of Ibadan, in 2008, at the Nigerian Society for Information, Arts, and Culture in 2008, during the West African Youth Entrepreneurship Summit at the Cultural Centre in 2008, at the Educare Trust Exhibition in 2009, at the Institute of African Studies in 2009, at the National Museum in 2009, at the Yoruba Academy in 2009, at the Oyo State Arts and Culture Fair, Cultural Centre, in 2009, and at the Ibadan Poetry Awards Exhibition in 2012, among others.
Silva, who was once a former student of the revered nonagenarian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya, became almost legendary through his art activism while in Ibadan. Besides his advisory role at the Oyo State Ministry of Information, Arts, and Culture, he was also a past executive of Alliance Française, Ibadan, a two-time judge at the Life in My City art competition, and a member of the Nigerian Field Society and Museum Society. Additionally, he frequently appeared as a guest on national and international television networks to talk about topics relating to art and has been well documented in national dailies.
Back to his most recent exhibition, The SILVA Lining, whose nuanced message of hope for a troubled nation appears to have struck a chord with many. Hence, Francis E. Madojemu said during the launch of the TECH Art Gallery that the topics discussed at the event were “life-changing for Nigeria,” adding: “Mr Silva concluded this evening’s programme, saying ‘this is an opportunity to rebrand our nation’ and I couldn’t agree with him more… and there’s nothing better than the arts (to achieve this).”