‘Sense of belonging’ from the series Albahian, 2019
The influential curator Azu Nwagbogu, recipient of the RPS Award for Curatorship 2021, is founder and director of the LagosPhoto Festival and the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF). Among the many photographers and artists he has championed over the years is Joana Choumali, the first African artist to win the Prix Pictet.
Choumali, who is based in Côte d’Ivoire, layers her photographs of everyday life in Africa with embroidery, image cut-outs and fabric swatches. Here, Nwagbogu explains what is so unique about Choumali’s work.
“Joana Choumali is an artist I greatly admire – I have worked with and championed her for a long time. I completely fell in love with her mindset and singular approach. As a human being she is such an empath, able to soak up the emotion of all the communities and individuals she collaborates with. As an artist she can make the viewer feel a similar surge of emotion. She has incredible instincts.
“She has gained a huge following but I always say to photographers and artists, ‘You’ve got to learn what’s in the box before you can think outside of the box.’ She knows the camera, knows her tools. She researches her projects and knows how to work within set structures such as is seen in her strict documentary work.
“When she goes out to work within a community at a certain time of day, it’s recursive – she returns at the same time over and over to maintain a certain feel. Then by embroidering on the printed material she’s able to create a new meaning and artefact for that space. The completed work is unique and special. While it’s cathartic for Joana and nourishes her, it also feeds the audience, who are in dialogue with the work and engaged by it.
“She covers human stories. Her work is diverse but personal. I wouldn’t want to call her a humanist photographer, but she uses researched human condition as the basis for her work and creates interventions in spaces that have been traumatised. She often returns to communities where she has worked to present her completed project. I’m glad to see her get the recognition she deserves.”
‘Ouagadougou New York 2’ from the series Translation, 2017
‘Abidjan Paris’ from the series Translation, 2017
‘Banjul Tokyo 2’ from the series Translation, 2017
‘Bromelia’ from the series Albahian, 2021