Joana Choumali Ivory Coast, b. 1974

Born in 1974, visual artist and photographer Joana Choumali lives and works in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Her work in conceptual portraits, mixed media and documentary photography portrays scenes from life in Côte d'Ivoire and across Africa. Joana began her career with photography in the documentary tradition. Her interest in the medium dates back to her childhood, when her family hired a local studio photographer to take a family portrait. She recalls being fascinated by the choreography of the process, much like a ceremony. Influenced by this moment and the black & white portraiture photography tradition of the late 20th century, Choumali committed to photography in earnest. These early works mark her interest in documenting Africa’s many movements between tradition and modernity. This is exemplified by her photographic series of dawn, a time of magical transition, in various cities, such as Abidjan, Accra (Ghana), Casablanca, (Morocco), and Dakar (Senegal). Her series Haabre: The Last Generation, which records the disappearing tradition of facial scarification among the Burkinabe (people from Burkina Faso) in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire illustrates this same encounter of tradition and contemporaneity.
Her practice took a momentous turn in 2016 with the terrorist attack in Grand-Bassam, a resort town close to her home. Choumali visited the town a few weeks after the violence, photographing passing strangers and eerily quiet streets on her iPhone. These pictures captured the melancholy that had descended upon a once joyful, vibrant place and people. Seeking a way to work through personal as well as collective grief over the tragedy, Choumali began to overlay the photographs with textiles, embroidery, cutout images, and gold paint. Process gains added significance in her work, which signifies the contemplative, meditative capacity to embroidery, and its power to clarify and winnow emotions. The end result is a stunning series of works that speak to myth and reality, desolation and abundance, and past and future. For the profundity of these works, Choumali was awarded the 2019 Prix Pictet, becoming the first African and second woman to be awarded this prestige. Turning to textile conceptually as well as methodologically, her 2020 Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography at the Harvard Peabody Museum focused on an “anthropology of clothing,” using photography and mixed-media methods to explore how clothes imported from the west influence local identity and trace the asymmetries in colonial relations and global trade.
Choumali studied graphic arts in Casablanca, Morocco and worked as an art director in an advertising agency before committing to her creative practice. She has a number of solo shows to her name, such as in Gallery 1957 (Ghana), Beurs Van Berlage (the Netherlands), 50 Golborne Gallery (UK), and Sperone Westwater (USA). Group exhibitions have borne her work at the Royal Academy of Arts (UK); Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (Morocco); Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (South Africa); and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (France). Upon winning the Prix Pictet, her work was exhibited in Hope, an international traveling exhibition that toured the Victoria and Albert Museum (UK), Daikanyama Hillside Forum (Japan), the Mouravieff-Apostol House & Museum (Russia), as well as venues in Zurich, Shanghai, Dublin, Monaco, and Milan. Her Adorn series, which illustrates how contemporary African women reinterpret western beauty ideals, was featured in the Côte d’Ivoire Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.
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