Sperone Westwater is pleased to present Joana Choumali’s first solo exhibition at the gallery, IT STILL FEELS LIKE THE RIGHT TIME, featuring photographic works from the acclaimed series “Ça Va Aller” (2016-2019) as well as new works from “Alba’hian,” an ongoing series begun in 2018.
Choumali is the first African winner of the prestigious Prix Pictet (2019), an annual honor for photography and sustainability, which she won for her series “Ça Va Aller,” consisting of iPhone photographs printed on cotton canvas and hand embroidered with cotton thread. The series was a response to the 2016 terrorist attack on the coastal resort town of Grand-Bassam, previously a refuge for the artist. In the weeks following the deadly attack, Choumali used her iPhone to discretely capture the altered tone of the town, which she described to the Guardian, “Most of the pictures show people by themselves, walking in the streets or just standing or sitting alone, lost in their thoughts. Or else they are pictures of empty places. After the attacks, the atmosphere changed and it seemed like melancholy, solitude and sadness had taken over the usually joyful town.” “Ça Va Aller” means “it will be okay” and is a common Ivorian expression used broadly, even to gloss over difficult situations. In discussing the work, Choumali describes the stigma associated with talking about emotional struggles, often considered a weakness or mental issue. To cope, she embroidered the resulting photographs with colorful thread, using each stitch as a meditation and a way to recover from the trauma. The prize culminated in “Hope,” an international traveling exhibition spanning numerous venues, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Daikanyama Hillside Forum, Tokyo; the Mouravieff-Apostol House & Museum, Moscow; as well as venues in Zurich, Shanghai, Dublin, Monaco, and Milan (2019-22).
Featured as well will be works from the artist’s latest series, “Alba’hian,” an Agni word which celebrates the powerful energy that comes with the first light of morning. Embarking on daily walks between 5 and 7am, Choumali frequently photographs the landscape at dawn, which she describes as a “magical time in which there is a sense of dialogue between reality and dream, between present and past memory.” Using a mixed technique of collage, embroidery, quilting and photomontage, Choumali builds upon these images, superimposing ethereal layers of sheer fabrics and golden paint interwtined with other photographs she takes during those walks, such as silhouettes of passerbys or quiet moments on the empty roads. Her process is slow, as meditative as the walks themselves, and by merging the instant—digital photography—with the contemplative—embroidery—Choumali explores the relationship between the metaphorical and the physical, evoking moments of revelation, introspection and rediscovery cross-culturally associated with the morning light.
Joana Choumali was born in 1974 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where she lives and works. She studied graphic arts in Casablanca and initially worked as an art director in advertising before pursuing photography. Choumali’s early practice focused on documentary portraits. Her recent work builds upon the intimacy of her early portraits by incorporating embroidery and textiles directly onto her photographic images. Her work has also been featured in exhibitions worldwide, including the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2021-22); Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden, Marrakech (2019-20); Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (2019); and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre (2017). In 2017, Choumali was included in the Côte d’Ivoire Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. She was named the 2020 Robert Gardner Fellow in Photography by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University and was awarded residencies with Nirox Foundation, Johannesburg (2017) and the IFITRY Residency, Essaouira, Morocco (2016; 2015).