In every episode of The artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a black artist, along with a few words from that artist that put the work in context. This week we take a look at “The Return of the Swallows” (2021) by Joana Choumali, whose work is the subject of “It still feels like the right time”, an exhibit on view through April 30 at New York’s Sperone Westwater.
Name: Joana Choumali
Located in: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Originally from: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Where and when did you make this work? I started it in August 2021 and finished it in my studio in Abidjan in October. It’s a small apartment five minutes’ walk from my house, a haven where I can relax and work and really dig into my memories and emotions, and then translate what I’m feeling.
Can you describe what happens in the work? It is a mixed-media piece that contains paint, embroidery, collage and cut-out figures from photographs. None of the photos I use in my work have been staged or found; I take them all myself wherever I travel. The first layer here is a landscape photo I took of a sunrise in Dakar, Senegal, and printed on cotton canvas. Then I recreated the colors of the sky by laying several layers of translucent fabric over the canvas, a bit like painting with watercolors. I sewed up the silhouettes of the children to fix the translucent fabric. I don’t stick with glue – I sew around each figure and then paint over it. And then I added layers of white sheer fabric to capture the misty atmosphere of the morning. It feels like a quilt or a blanket when you see it in person.
It is important for me to stand between the reality of the photo and the dream of my imagination. I want to create a dialogue between the two, between domestic and foreign landscapes and between past and present. And I’m fascinated by the symbolism of the sunrise, how every day is a new beginning. I started this project at a very difficult time in my life, and working on it every morning was both a spiritual journey and a physical exercise that got me through it.
What inspired you to make it? In August my mother passed away suddenly from Covid-19. We were very close, and it’s still hard for me to talk about. So all the works I show in the exhibition, including this one, are a kind of diary of my grief and became a way for me to say goodbye to her. Most of the figures in these works wear white, which is the color of mourning in our culture. It’s the color we wore to my mother’s funeral. The silhouettes of children in this photo were shot on Goree Island in Senegal. I was drawn to their innocence and joy, the carelessness that children can have. When I sewed pictures of them onto the piece, I felt like I was creating a picture of my siblings and other family members and me as children, and it reminded me of how innocent we used to be. The title of the work is ‘The Return of the Swallows’ and refers to the return of better times. That also helped me process things: the swallow’s spring return, like the sunrise, is a sign of new beginnings, and of resilience and strength. It also symbolizes letting go of what you cannot change.
What is a work of art in any medium that has changed your life? It could be so much, but today the most moving piece of art for me is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970). I play it often because it was a song I used to listen to with my family, and now it has a very deep meaning to me. When I hear it, I feel my mother’s presence, I see her sewing at the family table on Sundays, listening and singing along as she works. Through music you can go back: it is like being transported to a certain memory. I’m also touched by the comforting lyrics and the voices – it’s like a lullaby.
This interview has been edited and abridged.