How do we remember difficult pasts in contemporary society? Candice Jansen hears from Joana Choumali about bridging generational worlds of culture in her award-winning photography project about the last generation of men and women with Scarification in Abidjan.
Joana Choumali photographed those marked with the memory of a dying tradition in Hââbré, The Last Generation (2013). Her project on Scarification in contemporary Abidjan has also elicited criticism of the traditional practice. She welcomes the debate, admitting that she still hasn’t made up her mind about where she stands on Scarification. And does she have to? While her dispassionate style of studio portraiture draws our attention to the graphic nature of these facial scars, it also has us consider the individual lives of the men and women who have had to bear the mark of a tradition once revered but now condemned by urban society. Scarification also is a part of the cultural environment that shaped Joana as a child growing up in Abidjan, an environment she finds herself increasingly drawn to in her photography. “I’m just exploring my identity,” she says, which Joana acknowledges also remains inextricable from being interested in the photographic portrayal of women. I began our conversation asking her about the place of women in Scarification.
Candice Jansen | Joana, we spoke about the role of women in Resilients. Women seem to play an important part in many traditional rites of passage. What is the role of women in scarification?
Joana Choumali | Very important… most of the people who perform scarification on children and people in the villages were women. These women were considered artists with their own fame … their own style, if we could say that. Most people I photographed told me that it was women or sometimes even women from their families– an aunt or a grandmother who performed the ritual … it’s always been performed by women.
But why would you say is the practice now so condemned?
I don’t’ know if scarification really was something adults asked permission from their children to do, but to most of the people I talked to, it was really their parent’s decision. Parent’s thought it was the right thing to do. How it now plays out culturally in contemporary culture is that people realise there is psychological difficulty that comes with it. There are also health problems associated with it. Many young Africans don’t want scarification because they don’t want to look different from people they meet in the city. That’s an issue.
This then comes into conflict with the original intent for the practice which you say was supposed to make you recognisable, to help you belong…
Yes, but now most young people don’t want to wear their culture on their face. Even older people used to love their scars, be proud of it and now that they live in the city, they reject it because people insult them with a derogatory gesture that means ‘torn face’. The gesture also means you are not from here and therefore not a valuable person … having scarification is something heavy to bear in a society. It takes a lot of personality to accept stupid questions and peoples’ mean reactions.
You’ve learnt a great deal about the nature of individual scarification.
Enlighten me a little about that.
Mrs Djeneba (one of the women I photographed) has a few markings on her temples and three big, very deep, scars on her cheeks. It was a design chosen for her, typical of the Kô tribe from Burkino Faso. I had the opportunity to photograph many people from this region, just by chance. They all have this particular pattern, which I’ve already seen as a child growing up in Abidijan. It is a different pattern from those created in Benin or from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria.
What did Mrs Djeneba share with you about her journey with scarification?
Mrs Djeneba is a very funny woman. She likes to laugh and be joyful but at the same time, she had sadness in her eyes. She used to like her scarification when she was young–brag about it. She was considered one of the most beautiful girls in her village…but when she came to Abdijan as a young adult, she encountered people insulting her with the ‘torn face’ gesture. Now she hates it.
She hates it! She does! She says ‘it’s already on my face what should I do?’ ‘I accept it but if I could, I would take it off my face now’. She also has 5 or 6 children and none of them have scarification. She said she would never do that to her children…
Listen to an excerpt of Mrs. Djeneba in conversation with Joana Choumali during the documentation of Hââbré, The Last Generation (2013).
I am curious about how you approached photographing a project of such a sensitive nature. You said you wanted to photograph individuals in the studio so as not to distract from the graphic nature of their scars, to really
focus on their faces. You also said that in your research, most of the images that you found about the practice were ethnographic from early in the 19th century. How would you say your approach differs from an ethnographic one?
Yes … my photographs could be perceived as ethnographic but my intentions differ because I wanted to show that these are modern African people. It would have been easier for me to go to the villages of Burkino Faso or Nigeria and take pictures like ethnographers did in the 19th century. But I wanted to know what it felt like to live in Abidjan, a modern African city with scarification in 2014. I wanted to show these people out of the traditional context, out of the village or poverty, out of suffering…. Also I wanted to ask them what it felt like to have scarification. It was really important for me to know, and not only photograph because with historical ethnographic images–sometimes you don’t know what people are thinking. It was important to me to understand as an African myself. To learn without judgment…
Before you did this project, how did you judge scarification?
When I was younger I would have said it is barbarism…. Now I know that some practices can’t simply be seen as barbaric or savage or judged without knowing its cultural context. Everything can be positive and negative at the same time… But now if you ask me what I think about Scarification, I cannot give you an answer.
Staying with your photographic approach, why the choice of the blue backdrop for the portraits?
The blue background to me represented neutrality … or something ethereal and soft … blue is comforting and is a contemporary colour too…. I didn’t want to use white because white in my mind is too clinical….
There is an interesting relationship between the blue background, the graphic scars, and what people are wearing. Did you ask people to dress in a particular way?
No! It was difficult enough to get people to come to my studio. Sometimes they would come at 6 in the morning because most of them had to work. The women, most of them are shop owners and they had to open very early. Sometimes people would come on Sundays after church. I wasn’t the one picking the time and the date. They did. I was just happy that they would accept my invitation to come. Many didn’t.
The stars must have aligned…
Yes it’s by chance; it’s really by chance! I also wouldn’t have asked them to dress in a certain way because it wouldn’t be them. I just wanted them to be themselves, you know.
I also think the colour blue is in a sense, unemotional, which also gives your portraits a certain emotional neutrality…
Yes. You know in West African culture, older people don’t really show emotions. Most don’t really speak much French (the language I conducted my interviews in) and so their vocabulary was limited. But even if their French was not limited, it was difficult to get people to talk about emotional things. About what they really felt because there is a kind of dignity they maintain that becomes a boundary that you can’t cross without coming across as rude. I would ask a question and many would stay silent before saying one sentence and that’s it. I’d ask “did it hurt?” and they would say, “of course it hurts”. And that’s it. You can’t go further than that.
Joana Choumali (b.1974) is based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). She studied Graphic Arts in Casablanca (Morocco) and worked as an Art Director for an advertising agency in Abidjan before embarking on her career as a photographer. Her series, Hââbre, The Last Generation (2013) was awarded the POPCAP ’14 Africa Prize in 2014. Joana has also exhibited in Abidjan, Lagos, Angoulême, Basel, Barcelona, Cape Town and Amsterdam.
This article forms part of an interview series with the winners of POPCAP’14 prize for contemporary African photography.
Written by Candice Jansen.
All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.