‘It Was a Sort of Therapy for Me’: Joana Choumali, the First African to Win Europe’s Top Photography Award, on Her Emotive Work

Choumali has won the $100,000 Prix Pictet.

Joana Choumali. Photo courtesy the artist.

The Ivorian artist Joana Choumali has won the $100,000 Prix Pictet, one of the world’s top photography prizes. The announcement was made yesterday during a ceremony at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to mark the opening of an exhibition of the twelve shortlisted photographers.

The coveted award is just the latest accolade for the artist, who already has four other prizes for her conceptual portraits, mixed-media works, and documentary photographs. 

The Prix Pictet committee is recognizing Choumali for a series titled “Ça va aller” (it will be okay), in which she took iPhone photos in the Grand Bassam three weeks after a group of devastating terror attacks in March 2016. She later embroidered the pictures from “an instinctive need to stitch up wounds,” the 45-year-old artist tells Artnet News. “I wanted to do something repetitive, meditative, and it was a sort of therapy for me.”

Joana Choumali, Untitled (2019) from the series "Ça va aller" (2016–19). © Joana Choumali, Prix Pictet.

Joana Choumali, Untitled (2019) from the series “Ça va aller” (2016–19). © Joana Choumali, Prix Pictet.

“‘It will be okay’ is an expression that Ivorians use a lot to end conversations that can be uncomfortable or emotional or painful,” she says. “It is a way of dismissing things but also ending on a positive note.”

“I realized that all my [Grand Bassam] photos spoke of loneliness, weakness, desolate places, gloomy people, unformulated pain. And when I tried to speak to the people around me, they all said, ‘it will be okay.’ So this project is about this feeling of being unable to go to the end of this conversation, and not being able to express what I felt going to those places.” 

“Winning the prize is a great joy, a great fortune, and above all a great surprise and an honor,” says Choumali, who is the first African winner of the Prix Pictet.

Joana Choumali, Untitled, 2019. From the series: "Ça va aller," (2016-19). ©Joana Choumali, Prix Pictet.

Joana Choumali, Untitled (2019) from the series “Ça va aller” (2016–19). © Joana Choumali, Prix Pictet.

“The first person I thought of when I received the prize was my daughter because I can tell her that she can envisage herself here, and can see that it’s possible, that winning this type of prize doesn’t only happen to other people,” Choumali says. “It can happen to us too.”

It’s also a form of validation,” the artist added. “Winning this prize allowed me to see that I can be myself. I can stop feeling defeated and listen to my interior voice.”

Other embroidered works from a series titled “translation” are currently on view as part of the Ivory Coast pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

The Prix Pictet jury was chaired by Sir David King, a senior advisor to the Rwandan president. “In an extremely strong field, [Choumali’s] work stood out as a brilliantly original meditation on the ability of the human spirit to wrest hope and resilience from even the most traumatic events,” King said in a statement.

The jurors were V&A photography curator Martin Barnes; artist Richard Mosse, who won the award last year; Sotheby’s international council member Philippe Bertherat; Jan Dalley, the arts editor at the Financial Times; London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra; Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jeff Rosenheim; and the Pritzker prize-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima.

After its run at the V&A in London (through December 8), the Prix Pictet exhibition will travel to the Hillside Forum in Tokyo. It will later travel to venues in Zurich, Monaco, Moscow, and Lausanne, among other cities.

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