Using art to help understand life and herself

Liu Xiaolin
Three weeks after the March 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire, photographer and artist Joana Choumali visited the beach resort, an hour away from Abidjan.
Liu Xiaolin

Podcast EP14

Three weeks after the March 2016 terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, Côte d'Ivoire, photographer and artist Joana Choumali visited the beach resort, an hour away from her home in the capital Abidjan.

"The atmosphere of the little town changed, the sadness was everywhere," Choumali recalled in an email interview.

She took a series of snapshots with her iPhone to make the subjects "look natural," as if she was "scanning the city."

On printed canvas, she applied embroidery images, which led to the mixed art project "Ça va aller," meaning "It's going to be fine."

"It's a common phrase used by people in Côte d'Ivoire to casually reassure each other, even after a deeply traumatic event," she said.

The series won the eighth Prix Pictet, under the theme "Hope." Along with selected works from 11 other shortlisted photographers, Choumali's award-winning artworks are currently on display in the exhibition "Hope" at the Shanghai Center of Photography.

Using art to help understand life and herself
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Photographer and artist Joana Choumali

Q: What prompted you into "Ça va aller" in the wake of the traumatic event?

A: Most of the pictures show people by themselves, walking in the streets or just standing, sitting alone, lost in their thoughts. And empty spaces. I began embroidering the images on printed canvas as a way to cope with my own sadness. The meditative process has become ingrained in my daily practice. The brightly colored threads serve as the sentiments I could not express verbally, and a way to witness and acknowledge the trauma of the Grand-Bassam people. In Côte d'Ivoire, people don't discuss their psychological issues or feelings, and each conversation is quickly shortened by a resigned "Ça va aller."

Q: Why describe your embroidery as a self-healing "meditation"? How did you find it healing?

A: I love the meditative state in which one can be while embroidering. It is a very specific feeling. Soothing. I am particularly drawn to the idea of spending a lot of time on a picture that was shot in a snap. It takes several weeks, even months, to work on one picture, to "download" energies, thoughts, feelings, hopes, sorrow, fears and joys. It can be compared to automatic scripture, and has had a very positive impact on my life.

Q: What are the messages you want to convey in this series to the public?

A: My main message with this series was to open a conversation about mental health. My work helps me understand life better and understand myself. It allows me to heal and grow as a human being, and connect with other human beings without having to talk. To me, that kind of connection is the most rewarding aspect of being an artist. I am the most grateful if my work is thought-provoking, if it can open conversations. How can we cope after such a traumatic experience, both at a personal and collective level? I am amazed to realize that the effect and mood of my work can be communicated to the viewer. To get feedback from someone I don't know who connects with the work is the best part.

Using art to help understand life and herself
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Untitled, Ça va aller (2019), by Joana Choumali

Q: What originally kindled your fascination for photography?

A: As a child, I was always fascinated by photography. A photograph can be mesmerizing or shocking, it speaks directly to the subconscious, to the heart, to the guts. When I was 13, my parents brought a photographer to the house to shoot a family portrait. I was fascinated by his work and asked him a lot of questions. I become a full-time photographer in 2008. I observe the interactions between communities, cultures, continents. Photography is the canal I use to connect with other human beings.

Q: What inspired you to bring in embroidery to documentary photography?

A: I believe that using both documentary and conceptual photography is possible. It is just another way to address a social issue. Adding embroidery responded to a need to touch and physically intervene in my photographs. Then, I realized the impact that it had on me and my practice.

Q: What drove you from portrait and documentary photography to conceptual art creation?

A: In 2015, I worked on "Translation," a series of diptychs that was exhibited in the Ivorian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. This series was born from an inner quest, a need to restore what was born in me at the sight of the news. There was also this notion of loss, displacement and the mental impacts of migration, which were rarely mentioned in socio-political exchanges or even the press, concerning migration, immigration and exile.

Using art to help understand life and herself
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Untitled, Ça va aller (2019), by Joana Choumali

Q: What were the challenges?

A: The main challenge is that my process is very slow – a big contrast with the way I used to work. At the same time, the act of spending more time on pieces can also be painful, because it can force me to explore moments and thoughts that I want to explore or would have avoided exploring when shooting a digital photo.

This idea of working at a slow pace can be challenging, as it reveals unexpected aspects in the process. It is a constant discovery, part of my inner journey. It takes patience and consistency.

I organize my process to work on the most fragile parts of the pieces in the morning, when my eyes are not tired. It has even changed my relationship with time in a certain way.

Q: What do you normally do to work on an embroidery-photography art project?

A: Every project I start has a different process, and it is always evolving. Each medium is important as it merges into one piece. It is a very subtle and particular process.

My brain is in full activity, in full awareness of the gesture, and at the same time, there is a whole space that allows me to explore my thoughts and the discourse that I would like to express in my work. When I start a piece, I can't tell how and when it will end. The designs and choices of colors are not planned in advance. I set my imagination free, free to express itself in the photography and reveal its message.

Q: Do you consider your art-making process your regular mechanism to cope with trauma, bewilderment and hard feelings?

A: My work process is not only about trauma, bewilderment, and hard feelings. That is only a part of it. My process is also a way to work on all kinds of feelings and experiences I have. Good memories, joy and hopes are involved as well. Also progress in my life journey. I investigate, explore my identity, my gender, my spirituality, how I am impacted by what is happening to me and around me as well.

Using art to help understand life and herself
Courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

Untitled, Ça va aller (2019), by Joana Choumali

Q: How do you usually decompress?

A: To decompress, I spend time with my family and friends; I walk in nature, listen to music, meditation and swimming. And of course making art, as my practice is very close to my life.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your life as an artist? How did you handle the difficulties and anxiety?

A: The pandemic has affected my artistic process and still does. I recently lost my mother to COVID-19. My work helps me go through my grief.

Q: What's your next project?

A: My ongoing project "Albahian" is a mixed media project.Albahian means the "first light of the morning," or the dawn, in the Agni language of Côte d'Ivoire.

I begin the day by getting in contact with the land around me, observing the landscapes, the shapes of buildings or the objects slowly revealing themselves, the streets and its people awakening. The morning light at the beginning of each new day has made me become aware of the shift in my thoughts and my perception of realities. I witness the energy of the land and the changes in myself.

I have developed the habit of taking pictures of the landscapes every morning rigorously between 5 and 7am. I shoot landscape and street pictures with my DSLR camera. Afterward, I use a mixed technique of collage, embroidery, quilting and photomontage.

By superimposing my images with layers of narrative with sheer fabrics, I look for a layered world, right between dream and reality. I hatch, I erase, I cut and paste narratives. I redesign my vision of a world between dreams and reality.

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