Compelling as a word is an attempt to define the powerful core of Choumali’s photography series “Resilients.”
As stated by the Ivorian photographer Joana Choumali to Huffington Post: “Resilience is the ability to return to the original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity,” ”The ability to recover readily from adversity.”
An idea birthed by her inspiration from her grandmother, who passed on in 2001. Choumali was nudged to embark on her photo series documenting young, contemporary African women and their relationships to past generations.
Through the pictures , she says. “I was hoping to convey the fact that African women mutate through the generations while remaining anchored to their roots and traditions, able to remain true to themselves, just like the earth from which they came,” “Elasticity that turns into resilience.”
In order to celebrate African beauty in all its appearances and diversity , she drew further inspiration from African portrait photographers like Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keïta to classical European painters like Rembrandt.
For the set and lighting, she aimed to mirror representations of orthodox church icons, like the Black Madonna. “I wanted to present these modern African women as icons,” she said.
Channeling “Women with beautiful skin, no matter the complexion.”The artist reached out to her subjects through word of mouth and social media. “I had a precise type of woman in mind, with a natural beauty, the type of beauty that could ‘time travel,” Choumali explained.
She sought a modern woman in the world, someone who was educated, hardworking: a global citizen. And yet, someone with strong family values and ties, to whom their African heritage held paramount importance. “Most of them succeed in dealing with such a fragile balance between past and present, between Westernized habits and traditions. I think it makes them stronger. They adapt to these very subtle social and cultural changes.”
Sandrine Amah, a chemical engineer from Akan, posed for Choumali while she was pregnant. She wore her grandmother’s clothing, once worn by the Royal family of Abengourou, as well as her wig. “I was happy to capture the moment in this angle,”Amah said of the shoot, “immortalize the transmission of my grandmother, through her clothes, in presence of my mother and my daughter in my belly.”
The project, which Choumali described as being “like therapy,” yields stunning portraits that are a perfect mashup of strength and adaptability, modernity and heritage, contemporary art and classical portrait. The photographer mentioned the importance of the idea of “sankofa,” a Twi word from the Akan people of Ghana that literally translates to “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” This central idea, that both forward motion and past remembrance are of crucial import, give the already stunning images a timeless power.
“I hope to communicate the idea that there is an indissoluble bond that associates us with the previous generations,” Choumali said. “The importance of rediscovering and keeping in touch with the roots is what fully builds our identity. I would like to start a conversation about gender, cultural heritage and identity in today’s Africa. I believe that this is not only for African people, it is also valuable for any culture in the world.”
The photography process was a journey of self-discovery by looking backwards. Inspired by the poses of old African portraits, the subjects found themselves changing shape before the camera’s lens. “Some of the women told me that couldn’t recognize themselves in the pictures,” Choumali said. “Some felt stronger, some realized how beautiful they are.”