Maria Pia Bernardoni,
Maria Pia Bernardoni,
To me, Joana Choumali’s canvases are like visual poems, suggesting images more than showing them, making you feel and not only see. Alba’hian is a project that speaks directly to the observer’s subconscious, evoking memories from the past or allowing a connection with the image that goes well beyond what is immediately visible.
There’s something miraculous about being on the streets at the first light of day, when the sun is just beginning to make its imprint and most people are still in bed. Photographers and filmmakers – people for whom light is an essential material in their artistic practice – have names for this time of transition from night to day, calling the time just before sunrise “blue hour” and the time just after, “golden hour”. In Joana Choumali’s native language of Agni, this first light is Alba’hain, and it is with this term that Choumali titles her latest series of mixed-media work.
The artist has become well acquainted with early-morning light. While training for an intense trek through Asia, she began rising at 05:00 every day to take long walks through the streets of her hometown, Abidjan. The trip never came to fruition, but the walks have become something of a ritual for Choumali, who continues to wake early and explore her surroundings at first light. The photographs she takes on these hikes have become part of another ritual. Rather than seeing the images as artworks in themselves, Choumali uses them – whole and in parts – in large collages that are slowly built up out of layers of photographs, fabric, paint and embroidery.
This work plays with distance and scale, bringing a dreamlike quality to the pieces. Women walk on water, children touch the sky, and numerous figures pick their way between miniature high-rises. Instead of using Photoshop to covertly manipulate the images, Choumali's interventions are made visible through the hand-stitched seams that join cut-outs of people to the land- or cityscape that forms a canvas for the work. The layering of delicate chiffon and tulle fabrics mimics the eerie light of the early hours, creating delicate shades that contrast with the vibrant colours and metallic shine of her chosen threads.
Set within this tactile representation of fleeting blue and golden hour light, mundane tasks, like walking to work or hanging out the washing, are transformed into moments of quiet intimacy between people and their surroundings. The threads that weave in and out of the images and fabric forge physical connections between people and place. Rather than playing to the idea of photography as documentary, Choumali’s images become metaphors for the sense of possibility that comes with the first light of day. The artist herself articulates this best, saying, ‘Walking in the morning, for me, is like walking on a white page where anything can be printed.’ With this in mind, Alba’hain provides a glimpse of what might be written onto the pristine surface of each new day.
Written by Ish Doney
About Maria Pia Bernardoni
Maria Pia Bernardino is a curator and certified lawyer who, since 2015, has been the curator of international exhibitions for the African Artists’ Foundation and LagosPhoto festival. Having previously curated exhibitions at establishments including the Bozar Museum in Brussels and Palazzo Litta in Milan, she has a strong interest in managing intercultural art projects that offer a different perspective of gender and migration issues.