Ivory Coast-based artist Joana Choumali is known primarily for her photography, though her practice has seen her dabble in varied media to explore a common theme. Across sculpture, mixed media, collage, portraiture and documentary, Joana blurs the boundaries of her medium to explore personal identity, African identity and culture. One particularly recognisable piece from her photographic portrait series Hââbré, the last generation, which looked at the practice of scarification, was used as the lead image for Africa Is No Island, one of the opening shows at The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden, Marrakech (Macaal). Though the artist is exhibiting as part of the show, she is in fact taking part with a new series that displays a new addition to Joana’s toolkit – embroidery.
Titled Ça va aller, the name translates as “it’s going to be fine,” Joana explains, “a common expression in Côte d’Ivoire that people use as positive, optimistic term to deal with even the most traumatic events”. She began the series following the March 2016 Grand-Bassam terrorist attack near Abidjan, where Joana is based, where gunmen opened fire at numerous beach resorts. “I was shocked to see that just a few weeks later, people weren’t talking about it much anymore. In the Côte d’Ivoire no one talks about their trauma. It’s a big taboo in my country and community.
“However as I was walking around and scanning the mood of the city, I was sad to see it so different to what I was used to seeing. This place had always been a place of community, but now I noticed solitude, melancholy and empty spaces.” Joana began to take photographs to capture this atmosphere, using her phone rather than a camera so people would act naturally and wouldn’t be self-aware. “So many journalists were there taking photos, but I was there not as a reporter but as a citizen.”
Then, feeling a need to emote through these images, she began to embroider into the photographs. “It was like therapy,” she describes. “A way to express what I couldn’t do verbally.” Each photograph is small, only 24cm square, and each has taken Joana one or two weeks to complete. “When I start [sewing], I don’t know how it’ll finish. I don’t sketch or plan, it’s a slow process. I’m working on one now as I speak to you. It’s become part of daily life; more than work, a way to relax and contemplate. I do it automatically, without thinking.”
Ça va aller was displayed at the Akaa Art Fair in Paris in November 2017, and after its display at the Macaal will be shown at the 1:54 fair in New York in May. Joana hopes the works and their subject matter will open up dialogue about the traumatic events and their effects among the local people. “I want to find a way to communicate what I see and feel through these pieces, and I hope it will make people talk more,” she concludes.