Joana Choumali ジョアナ・シュマリ
‘Alba’hian’ in Agni (the language of the Akan cultural group of Côte d’Ivoire) means 'the first light of the day.' Every morning Joana Choumali wakes up at dawn and takes a walk, observing the land and buildings, shapes slowly revealing themselves, the streets and people awakening. As the morning light slowly makes every detail of the material world visible, she becomes aware of a shift in her thoughts and perceptions. Her morning stroll becomes a ritual of introspection.
During her walks she takes pictures of the landscape. Afterwards, using a mixed technique of collage, embroidery, painting, and photomontage, she superimposes onto the photographs several layers of ethereal fabrics, intertwined with silhouettes of passers-by. The result is a delicate and dreamy toile which evokes invisible meanings and revelations from the artist’s morning experiences. One might say that Choumali’s work is made of the same elements that memories and dreams are made of. The long hours she spends sewing together different layers of fabric, and embroidering onto the prints her motifs and drawings, have become a form of meditation.
What Choumali creates is not immediately visible in its entirety. As with her morning walks, the beauty and the complexity of her artworks are perceived only through a process of discovery of each detail. The exploration of each piece is like the unveiling of a hidden treasure. It recalls Joana’s relationship with her own land—the place where she feels most alive, surrounded everywhere by poetry, constantly regenerating energy and beauty.
Joana Choumali ジョアナ・シュマリ
Special Interview | Joana Choumali
2023.01.25 via zoom
Interview by Sayaka Sameshima / Text by Nana Tazuke
Discovering the power of photography
── What made you pursue a career in photography?
Choumali: Ever since I was a child, I looked at magazines and pictures and imagined how light creates different results. When I was a teenager, a photographer came to my family to take our portraits. I felt like he had the power to make someone’s appearance natural and beautiful, and build trust between us at the same time. For me, that kind of connection between the photographer and us was amazing. I thought, ‘I wish I had these interactions with people, and I could testify to their existence in life with my photographs’. Then when I was studying graphic design in Casablanca, Morocco, I started to get into documentary portraiture, because it gave me a way to connect with other people. At the same time, it was my responsibility to not make them appear different from what they are. It was also a very good way to learn what it means to be human. Taking portraits allowed me to connect with other people and get to know myself better.
── What does photography mean to you as a form of expression?
Choumali: Photography is more than a tool or a practice for me. It is something that has allowed me to grow and help me. Through photography, I can connect to someone or something easier than usual because the camera lens connects us naturally. So, photography leads me on my spiritual journey. On a professional level, photography helps me to open the world. It doesn’t seem like it, but I’m a shy person. When I hide behind my work, I can say anything, and I feel more courageous to express myself. For me, photography is a precious asset that is central and valuable in my life.
Connecting embroidery to the identity of a female photographer
── How did you come up with the idea of embroidering on photographs?
Choumali: At the beginning of my career in the late 1990s, there weren’t many female photographers so it was very important for me as a woman to be a professional photographer because I wanted to be respected. But when I reached my goal, I wanted to reconnect with my femininity. Back then, embroidery was considered to be a typical housework for women, which led me to make embroideries on photographs I took with my iPhone. This was totally unconventional and allowed me to do something that goes beyond the boundaries of photography. What is photography today? With photography, I feel free as a woman and as a photographer. The fact that I’m a woman is also something that I’m proud of; I want to show it in the most natural way, in the most honest way, with integrity.
── Tell us more about the way you use mixed media.
Choumali: I started to think that rather than just taking documentary photographs, I needed to engage more deeply with my work and bring in an additional layer of my experience as a human being, as an artist, as a woman, and as a Black woman. And so, I work with different materials and mixed media in my work. I am self-taught in embroidery. As a travelling photographer for international magazines and journals, I didn’t find time for it at first. One day I decided to slow down and venture into the embroidery project I always had in mind.
My most known project, Ca va aller, was created after the Grand-Bassam terrorist attack near the combat in Abidjan. The title Ca va aller means “it will be okay” in French. I went to the combat to interview people who were witnesses, wounded or had lost family members. In Côte d’Ivoire, people do not talk usually about their psychological issues or feelings, but the Socrates Society invited people for free therapy. Learning how to deal with one’s feelings was very interesting. So, I decided to take pictures with my iPhone every single day in the city. I used to go there, and since it was a family place, everyone went there, especially on weekends. I could literally feel the melancholy and sadness surrounding me in my bones. At that time, I got sick and was going through a challenging time because a family member was dying. It was a hard time. I was stuck in my bed, but I really wanted to live and keep myself alive by creating something because this is what I can do the most to stay alive. So, I started embroidering on my bed. I printed the pictures on a 24 cm canvas, a very small one that even fits in my bag. And I started embroidering when I was in the hospital or when I met family members. Embroidery is a very meditative work, and I could focus on something constructive. I did it just for me.
── What are you going to show in Kyoto?
Choumali: I’m going to show my latest project Alba’hian in Kyoto. When I started the project Alba’hian, I thought it was something just for me. It comes by itself. It’s like when your teeth grow, you can’t control the pace, whether it slows down or speeds up. When I started this project, another family member became very sick and I was very worried. I was busy taking care of my family, but I needed time to do something just for myself. This time I only could have time in the early morning before starting the day. For me, every day was another opportunity to hope that things would get better. So, I walked around for four hours, just sitting down, and watching the sunrise as if I had to go to a personal meeting with the sun. It was a very precious privilege that I had a place just for me where I could be myself. It was then when I started to take pictures of the landscape with my camera and explore my city. I could see a true and different side of the city because Abidjan is a metropolis, but it is quiet in the morning. The pictures I took while thinking of memories or little happenings were things I didn’t have time for during the day. I took pictures, also with my iPhone, of the people around me, the people I met on the street in the morning, and I started reconstructing what I could feel and see. So, I started working with the light and the colour of the sky. I added layers and layers to recreate the colour of the sky and enhance it, but manually. That is why I focused on this sky at first. I also walked a lot during COVID-19. I could go out in the morning because silence dominated the city.
── Could you tell us about the value in your life after the COVID-19 pandemic?
Choumali: Yes, life has changed drastically for me as well. Many people have lost very close relatives and loved ones. My mother passed away last year because of COVID-19. It was a very brutal separation. I’m still trying to recover from this very traumatic loss. What I value most now is the present. I don’t want to put anything off and I feel like I don’t have time. If I must do what I have to do, I will do it. This is one thing that is really new for me. I want to live, to stay alive and have as many experiences as possible while I’m here because I have learned that life is very fragile and that nothing can be taken for granted. We think everything has returned to normal, but the world is still recovering. And that will take much more time than we actually think. We could see so many changes, slightly subtle changes in our behaviour, in the way we interact with people now, and it’s very interesting to watch. I also like to observe how societies change afterwards and how we are evolving into a new kind of society. It is interesting, because we all had to question our own existence for the first time.
Neighbours―making a new connection between Kyoto and Abidjan
── You will also exhibit your artwork at the Masugata Arcade. What will you show there?
Choumali: The artwork I will exhibit at the Masugata Arcade are called Bel Village. This is the name of the market in Abidjan. When I hear about the market, I was very happy because I will be able to see living people from Kyoto there. I think I can blur the border between two cities, Kyoto and Abidjan, with my artwork at the market. I want to make a new relationship visible by photographing the people at the market in Abidjan and connecting them with the people at the market in Kyoto. This time I associate the people with the relevant activities at the market. For example, the seller of food is associated with a person in a restaurant.
── Your project creates new connections with people from different backgrounds and roots.
Choumali: Yes, because it’s the only fact that we all live as human beings on this planet. They focus on the similarities that different people have instead of seeing what separates us. I know it seems to be a huge issue when I say, ‘we are all the same’. But no, we are not all the same. We can learn from each other, and share more than we think. There will be two pictures next to each other, side by side. On the left, there will be a picture from Kyoto and on the right a picture from Abidjan. The two pictures will be displayed together to blur the line between the two images. I hope it looks like an imaginary place where these two people work together in the same market. In that sense, I’m creating my own imaginary market as if Kyoto is the neighbour of Abidjan. It will be a hybrid market and a place where we can all be. I will bring my people with me to Kyoto.
── So, will this project be made for KYOTOGRAPHIE?
Choumali: Yes. It’s still a work in process. I embroider in a very special way. Sometimes different motifs are connected in my imaginary thread, which looks like one picture. They become very colourful. I like the people in my works to be depicted equally, no matter who they are. So, it looks like they’re standing together on the same level as each other. I also want to show people in Abidjan and Kyoto, that they are the same people as you, and to give the feeling that we have a lot in common.
── The people at the Masugata Arcade would be proud to be involved in your project.
Choumali: I hope so. They will recognise themselves and their colleagues there.
── It sounds like your embroidery takes a lot of time. How long does it take to finish an embroidery work?
Choumali: It can take months because I work on several pieces simultaneously. I work in many steps, like a printer. First, I prepare the canvas and work only on the skies. And then I just do the silhouettes. Then I add the layers and layers and wait. The border phase is the last. Some pieces take six months. The minimum time is a month. Sometimes I embroider on the front and back, and also embroider in several layers. On top of that, I also paint. So, it’s a very long process.
── I understand. That is very elaborate and intensive work.
Choumali: Yes. Sometimes I have a piece almost finished, and then I feel that I have to add or remove something. Sometimes I even decide to undo everything, start over again, and change the piece entirely. Because what I felt at that moment is no longer what I think here and now. For me, each piece is like a person. The process of creating is the most important thing for me to keep to myself. I’m not attached to the material, but to what I have learned and thought.
── Please give us a message to the visitors of KYOTOGRAPHIE.
Choumali: I can’t wait to come to Kyoto! I’m really looking forward to meeting visitors of all ages and genders at KYOTOGRAPHIE. Art is one of the best ways to communicate with other people. There is no better opportunity for me to come to Japan. I’m thrilled.
Born in 1974, Joana Choumali is a visual artist / photographer based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. She studied graphic arts in Casablanca (Morocco) and worked as an art director in an advertising agency before embarking on her photography career. She works mainly in conceptual portraiture, mixed media, and documentary photography. Much of her work focuses on Africa, and what she has learned about its myriad cultures. Her major awards include the CapPrize Award (2014) and the Emerging Photographer LensCulture Award (2014). In 2019, she became the first African to win the 8th Prix Pictet for her series Ça va aller (It will be ok) on the theme of ‘Hope.’ Her book HAABRE, THE LAST GENERATION, was published in Johannesburg in 2016. In 2020, she was named a Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University.
Maria Pia Bernardoni マリア・ピア・ベルナルドーニ
Maria Pia Bernardoni is a curator and cross cultural project organizer, focusing on the organization and promotion of community-based projects with a social impact. Having worked with artists and institutions from several West African countries, as curator, consultant and artists’ representative, she has built a trusted reputation, networks and relationships with many African arts practitioners. She is curator of international exhibitions for the African Artists’ Foundation and LagosPhoto festival since 2015 and part of the curatorial team of the festival from 2015 to 2019. She conceived and directed the short film If I Left My Country, a series of interviews with asylum seekers and French citizens, shown at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Photography Festival in 2018. Visiting researcher at the Brighton University, in 2020, with a project aiming at building innovative collaborations between the academy and the contemporary art world.
Ryosokuin Zen Temple
591, Komatsu-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Keihan Line "Gion shijo" station. 7 min on foot from Exit 3
Hankyu Line "Kyoto Kawaramachi" station. 10 min on foot from Exit 1
Panel Discussion “TRANSCULTURE”
DELTA/KYOTOGRAPHIE Permanent Space
PANEL DISCUSSION “Scenography on KYOTOGRAPHIE”
Kurochiku Tenshokan 2F
PANEL DISCUSSION “Art as a Meditation”
Ryosokuin Zen Temple