Joana Choumali

smiling photographer in her workspaceChoumali (1974– ), a visual artist and photographer born and based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (formerly called the Ivory Coast), will use the fellowship to create Yougou-Yougou (Secondhand Clothing), a photographic and mixed-media project exploring how imported western clothing affects community identity and exposes inequalities created by colonial legacies, transnational trade, and global power relations.

The thirteenth recipient of the fellowship, Joana Choumali, studied graphic arts in Casablanca, Morocco, and worked as an art director in an advertising agency before embarking on a photographic career. Her work focuses on the “innumerable cultures” of the African continent. She works mainly on conceptual portraits, documentary photography, and mixed media, most recently embroidering directly on photographic images with what she calls, “a slow and meditative gesture.”

Choumali plans to ground her Gardner Fellowship project, Yougou-Yougou, in an “anthropology of clothing.” She will look specifically at what happens when western “fast fashion”—secondhand clothes, and message T-shirts—is imported to African consumers, many from less affluent classes. “My aim is to demonstrate that through this clothing our Ivorian community (more precisely, the dynamic youth) generally appropriates culture, incorporating styles and messages into their self-presentation, imagination, and social practices.” Choumali will investigate the sociopolitical implications of this in Côte d'Ivoire, and possibly adjacent countries.

In November 2019, Choumali was the first African recipient of the Eighth Prix Pictet for her series  ça va aller (it will be okay) on that year’s theme of Hope. According to The Prix Pictet website, the chair of the 2019 jury, Sir David King, declared, “In an extremely strong field, [Choumali’s] work stood out as a brilliantly original meditation on the ability of the human spirit to wrest hope and resilience from even the most traumatic events.” Ça va aller was Choumali’s response to March 2016 terrorist attacks at Grand Bassam, a small holiday town near Abjidjan. “To me, Bassam was a synonym of happiness, until that day. Three weeks after the attacks, a kind of melancholy invaded the town. I decided to wander the silent, empty streets and shoot with my iPhone. Most of the pictures show empty places, people by themselves. Back home I felt the need to process this pain and I discovered that I could do so through embroidery. Each stitch was a way to recover, to lay down the emotions, the loneliness, and mixed feelings I had. As an automatic scripture, the act of adding colorful stitches on the pictures has had a soothing effect on me, like a meditation. Adding embroidery on these street photographs was an act of channeling hope and resilience.”

Choumali’s earlier works exhibit an equally bold but more traditional approach to photography. Among these is the book, Haabré: The Last Generation (Fourthwall Books, 2016), which contains a series of studio portraits of people who are among the last generation to “bear the ritual scarification associated with a number of ethnic groups in various parts of West Africa.” She combines these with interview excerpts from her sitters which reveal “a range of responses to scarification, from pride to ambivalence and even outright rejection of the facial markings.” As she explains on her website, “These portraits and texts examine the complex role of tradition in an urban setting such as Abidjan and suggest the shifting nature of the concepts of beauty and identity.”

Choumali has exhibited her work at the Museum of Civilizations (Abidjan); the Donwahi Foundation for Contemporary Art (Abidjan); the Rotonde des Arts Contemporary Art Center (Abidjan); the Vitra Design Museum (Basel); the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Marrakech); the Museum of Photography of Saint-Louis (Senegal); the Troppen Museum (Amsterdam); the International Photography Biennale of Bamako; the Photoquai Biennale (Quai Branly Museum (Paris); the Lagos Photo Festival; and PhotoVogue Festival.

In 2014, she won the CapPrize Award and the 2014 Emerging Photographer LensCulture Award. In 2016, she received the Magnum Emergency Grant Foundation, and the Fourthwall Books Award in South Africa. In 2017, she exhibited her series Translation and Adorn at the Pavilion of the Ivory Coast during the 57th Venice International Biennale. Her latest mixed-media series, Alba’hian, was exhibited at the Zeitz Mocaa Museum of Contemporary Arts (Capetown). Her work has been published in the international press: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Harper’s Bazaar Art, El Pais (Spain), Le Monde (France), Le Temps (Switzerland), La Stampa, The Internazionale (Italy), The Guardian, and The Financial Times (Great Britain).

Joana Choumali photo ©Abbas Makke 2020