Joana Choumali’s Vividly Embroidered Photographs Are Expressions of Hope
The threads of Ivorian artist Joana Choumali’s body of work intricately weave together emotions, memories, thoughts, and dreams. The photographer is led by explorations of her identity and her environment, as well as universal questions: “Who are we?” “Where are we going?” and “Where do we come from?” Working across multiple mediums—photography, sculpture, mixed media, embroidery, and collage—she always alludes to the criticality of her role as an artist, a female, an Ivorian, and an African. Choumali affirmed in an interview, “My works are all about acceptance of who we are, and exploring the subconscious.”
Choumali was born in 1974 in Côte d’Ivoire, which, over the course of her life, went from being a thriving, recently independent post-colonial state to a country ravaged by political and social turmoil. Before pursuing her career as an artist, she studied graphic arts in Casablanca, then returned to Abidjan to work as an art director at an ad agency. In the time since, she has developed several bodies of work, beginning with photography and expanding into mixed-media work.
Last year, Choumali became the first African artist to win the Prix Pictet, one of the world’s most highly coveted photography awards. She was awarded 100,000 Swiss francs for converging photography and sustainability through her series “Ça va aller” (“It will be okay”) (2016–19). These works are made up of vivid embroidery atop street photography, shot after terrorist attacks in Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam in 2016. The works served as both a form of therapy for Choumali and a way for her to convey how her people, Ivorians, cope with trauma brought on by war. A particular focus was the violence their nation dealt with due to civil unrest from 2002 to 2007 and again from 2011 to 2012. Choumali recalls the melancholy that made way for the series. “The sadness was everywhere,” she recounted on her website. “Most of the pictures show people by themselves, walking in the streets or just standing, sitting alone, lost in their thoughts.” Embroidery became an act of hope within an existence full of despair.
The meditative process of using brightly colored threads to display unsaid sentiments sets Choumali apart from her peers, while broadening the scope of contemporary African photography. It’s a practice that is the result of the artist’s “need to touch and physically intervene with [her] photography,” she said. The labor-intensive process of hand-stitching threads into photographs printed on cotton canvas is time-intensive but necessary for the artist. It’s a poignant yet silent personal protest.
Another series, “Alba’hian,” which is ongoing, is centered around moments of stillness in the cities of Abidjan and Accra. To create these works, Choumali wakes up at 5 a.m. to walk and photograph landscapes. “I superimpose onto the photographs several layers of sheer fabrics, intertwined with silhouettes of passers-by photographed with my smartphone,” she explained. “My work becomes a materialization of memories and dreams that I had while walking and exploring the city.” Choumali is known for her fervor for exploring her relationship with the African continent, so it comes as no surprise that she has expanded the project to African cities like Johannesburg, Dakar, and Casablanca and is considering other African countries and cities.
For her more introspective series “Translation”(2016–17), Choumali employed textiles to explore a world “without formalities or visa restrictions,” per her website. The body of work is made up of visuals that call to mind a lack of borders between places.
Choumali is particularly gifted at bringing life to traditionally flat mediums. The 2014–15 series “Resilients” displays the struggle of African women attempting to bridge the gap between the present and their families’ traditional pasts; the women are shown wearing clothing from older female relatives. Choumali created the work in response to the loss she experienced when her grandmother died in 2001. Perhaps it was her way of both honoring her memory and attempting to connect and heal.
She turned to the stories of others for the portrait series “Hââbré, The Last Generation” (2013–14), which juxtaposes the traditional and modern significance of scarification. Choumali gathered the testimonials of individuals who emigrated from Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire but are reminded of their pasts and their home by the scars on their faces. The mere images above evoke an array of intense feelings.
Choumali has exhibited her work extensively, including at esteemed international institutions such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Tokyo’s Daikanyama Hillside Forum, Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, New York’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, and Paris’s Quai Branly Museum. Yet Choumali is nowhere near done taking her distinctive style around the world, nor is she done evolving.
The Prix Pictet Hope Exhibition that features her work recently closed at EPFL ArtLab in Lausanne, Switzerland. Presently, her work is on display at Casablanca-based Loft Art Gallery in a group show titled “The Inner Garden.” As this year’s Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography, she is also working on yet another mixed-media and photographic project, “Yougou-Yougou” (“Secondhand Clothing”). In this work, she’s seeking to dissect how the African importation of Western clothing affects its communities and inequalities brought on by colonization, trade, and globalization. Choumali will investigate the appropriation of culture and incorporation of styles as they pertain to the ways in which members of African communities present themselves.
Choumali celebrates the beauty and richness of African cultures, bearing in mind all that can be learned from fading traditions. “By knowing where we come from, we become ambassadors for our continent,” she says. The past makes headway towards the future. With an Africa so full of untold stories, Choumali’s stitching atop canvases could go on for as long as she feels fit to do so and be handed off to a new generation.