Healing is a process. We mend our wounds, stitch by stitch, as time fuses the brokenness between. Multidisciplinary artist, Joana Choumali, takes this metaphor to heart in her award-winning series of embroidered photographs, Ça Va Aller (It Will Be Fine). Recognized as one of LensCulture’s 2014 Emerging Talents, Choumali was presented with the eighth Prix Pictet in November; an award symbolizing the theme of Hope.
In early 2016 Choumali created abroad during her second residency awarded by the Ifitry Contemporary Art Center in Essaouira, Morocco. After an immersive experience of art-making, the memories of her return home to the Ivory Coast will forever be tainted by global events. On the same day she boarded her flight, airlines across the world were thrust into high alert when a trio of suicide bombers attacked Brussels Airport and a major metro station. Yet, for Choumali, the epicenter of another tremor struck much closer to home, a mere nine days before.
On March 13, 2016, terrorists gunned down nineteen people, injuring at least 33 others, on the beaches of Grand Bassam, a resort town near her home in Abidjan where Choumali’s family often met for Sunday lunch. Upon her return, memories of this once-familiar landscape were drowned out by a tragic sense of loss. Choumali walked the shoreline and felt waves of sadness in the air. “The energy was different as if life was painfully running in a melancholic slow motion.
”Where restaurants and beachfront hotels were once brimming with tourists, Choumali instinctively documented this new sense of hollowness in largely vacant spaces, using her smartphone, before participating in a psychiatric conference that encouraged residents to take advantage of free consultations at the General Hospital in Grand Bassam. “Except for the first week, people would hardly talk about their experience and the trauma. They would end the conversation with this very Ivorian expression: ‘Ça va aller’ (It will be okay).” A phrase of comfort concealed emotional avoidance. The complimentary services were intended to help people better cope with trauma born from this collective suffering.
For Choumali, the process of healing emerged through creation. She never intended for the casual collection of smartphone images to come together in the way they did. This direction was born from intuition as she began piecing thoughts and emotions together during long periods of time spent at home or in waiting rooms where she, herself, was healing from illness. “I had this urge to express myself and to continue to work; to spend time with the pictures.”
What started in the privacy of her own room began to spill out and absorb other areas of her life. “I would take a canvas with me in a little bag and embroider from the hospital waiting room, in traffic, etc. I was stitching every day, all day.” Some pieces took several weeks to complete and the work continued over a period of three years.
Choumali describes herself as self-taught in the art of embroidery and found herself repeating the same stitch, suturing her photographs, “as if it was to repair a wound.” She shares fond memories of the N’zassa tradition, an artform symbolizing the unity of multiple cultures through assorted pieces of cloth bound together by thread. “I remember my maternal grandmother used to stitch all day, doing patchworks with little leftovers of wax fabrics. I was fascinated by her patience. I wondered why she would put so much effort in stitching with a needle and thread.”
When Choumali asked her grandmother why she didn’t use the sewing machine for these patchworks as she did when making dresses, the response was merely silence and a soft smile. “Today I fully understand the effect of hand-stitching. I was able to allow myself to embroider on my images in an instinctive way, marking a turning point in my way of understanding/processing life through my art. My inner universe merges with the exterior; the photographs I had taken. This meditative approach allows me to discover another way of experiencing certain events in my life.”
In another, she photographs absence in the empty landscape and imagines it full of life once again. Now lush with vegetation, Choumali embroiders cocoa trees in golden thread. “The sky is filled with small, fluorescent yellow dots which represent all the thoughts, expectations, and interior hopes which will not be formulated but which exist inside of us.”
When she returned from London after receiving the Prix Pictet, her family naturally gathered back together at the restaurant they used to frequent before the attacks. “That day I saw Grand Bassam again; the Grand Bassam I used to know.” She recalled her footsteps along deserted shores and streets in 2016 in surreal contrast. “It was as if the wound had healed.” Choumali now sees resilience, the healing power of time, and “this wonderful ability to recover from trauma.”
“I realized that it’s not about denying the difficulty of a situation. The most important thing is to recognize it, to work on it, and take each step forward as a positive step; one day at a time.”