Photographer Joana Choumali resolved to document young, contemporary African women and their relationships to past generations.
“Resilience is the ability to return to the original form after being bent, compressed, or
This idea of strength in plasticity is at the core of Choumali’s photography series “Resilients.” The concept was inspired by her grandmother, who passed away two years ago. The artist realized upon her grandmother’s passing just how much of her story had gone with her.
She resolved to embark on a project that would document young, contemporary African women and their relationships to past generations. Through the photos, Choumali hoped to convey that the past is never truly lost. “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,” she said. “Elasticity that turns into resilience.”
Choumali also wanted to celebrate African beauty in all its diverse manifestations. Her inspirations ranged 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.
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. “Women with beautiful skin, no matter the complexion.”
She also had a certain personality in mind. 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.”
To create the images in “Resilients,” Choumali and her subjects would meet up and, firstly, talk, sharing memories about their mothers, grandmothers, hometowns and origins. Then they’d search for clothing items in their family history — a scarf from their mother, jewelry from their grandmother, to compile a vision composed of equal parts past and present.
“I would always play some music, mostly African classics,” Choumali added. “It was like a ritual, an almost religious moment, a meditation. The process of makeup, the hairstyling, the wrapping of the rich traditional fabrics were very impactful on their attitudes. Their gestures and postures changed after getting dressed. Many of them said that wearing the jewelry and rich fabrics made them feel stronger, more elegant, almost royal.”
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.”
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.”