Based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Joana Choumali studied Graphic Arts in Casablanca and worked as an art director in an advertising agency before embarking on her photography career. Using conceptual portraiture, mixed media, and documentary she explores identity, particularly her own, focusing on Africa and what she as an African learns about the other cultures around her. In the two-part series, Awoulaba/Taille Fine, Choumali explores the complex, contradictory notion of femininity, beauty, and body image in contemporary Africa and, by extension, possibly, in contemporary society at large as evidenced by the sudden worldwide obsession with enhanced bottoms and, previously, breasts.
Awoulaba means “beauty queen” in the Baule language of Ivory Coast, referring to full-figured women, while taille fine on the other hand is used to identify models or mannequins following western beauty standards. In the first part Choumali documents local manufacturers in Cote d’Ivoire who are producing mannequins customized for African taste and shapes. In the second she superimposes body parts of real women onto the perfect shapes of the mannequins, evoking the “Venus” celebrities who embody “perfect beauty” in popular culture: Kim Kardashian ( the “white awoulaba”) , Nikki Minaj ( the “light skinned” Awoulaba ) Naomi Campbell (the black taille fine)…
2. Laia Abril
Spanish artist Laia Abril (1986) is a photographer and multi-platform storyteller. Indicative of her background in journalism, Abril’s projects focus on telling intimate stories that evoke uncomfortable realities linked to femininity. Her current exhibition at Arles – On Abortion – is the first chapter of a new long-term visual research project, A History of Misogyny. On Abortion documents and conceptualizes the dangers and deaths caused by women’s lack of access to legal, safe, and free abortion. Abril’s previous projects have focused on subjects ranging from eating disorders, as is the case in Thinspiration, a fanzine that explores the Pro Ana community and it’s use of photography, to the experiences of the asexual community in her 2013 web-documentary, and the tedium experienced by young web-cam sex performer couples as they await paying clients in her photographic series Tediousphilia.
3. Sarah Waiswa
This year’s winner of the Rencontres d’Arles Discovery Award, Sarah Waiswa is a documentary and portrait photographer born in Uganda. Currently based in Kenya, she began photography after studies in sociology and psychology followed by a stint in the corporate world. Waiswa’s work focuses on the exploration of identity on the African continent. Stranger in a Familiar Land examines the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa. In certain countries, they are hunted for their body parts – highly sought after for their supposed occult powers – as is the case in Tanzania where there is a lucrative black market in albino body parts. So lucrative, in fact, that people suffering from albinism are attacked, their limbs hacked off in the streets or in their own homes during the middle of the night. Waiswa’s subject, an albino woman, appears set against the backdrop of Nairobi’s Kibera slums, one of the biggest in the world, which serves as a metaphor for the artist’s turbulent vision of the outside world, where the subject must face the dual challenge of sun and society. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state.
4. Maud Sulter
Born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and Ghanaian father Maud Sulter (1960 – 2008) was a photographic artist, poet, playwright, and curator. Her work focused on issues of race and gender, questioning in particular the lack of representation of black women in the history of art and photography as well as investigating the experiences of the African diaspora in European history and culture over the past six hundred years. Sulter’s Zabat series depicts the nine Greek muses embodied by nine creative black women, allowing Sulter’s muses, unlike their their Greek counterparts, to eschew the passivity associated with women in the Western artistic tradition. Terpischore, the muse of dance for example, is embodied by the performance artist Delta Streete. In Syrcas, Sulter creates photomontages in which Africans and African art objects are superimposed on vintage postcards of idyllic Alpine scenes that invoke Nazi ideology, particularly questions of racial purity and the presence of Africans in Europe.
Born to Colombian parents who emigrated to Paris to escape the extreme political violence of the early 90’s Biswell’s work explores the themes of vulnerability, morality, and human fate. She is committed to capturing the lesser-known aspects of contemporary life, the invisible and defiant elements of society, taking a deep interest in the extreme states and depths of the human mind and experience. Nama Bu, which means “we exist” in Embera, is an exploration of the identity and cosmogeny of the Native American Embera Chamis community. In Tropical Mythology: Leda and the Swan, she interprets the Greek myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus disguised in the form of a swan in order to translate the intensity of the eternal quest for fertility, sexuality, and fatality.
The Nigerian artist and filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa lives and works between Brooklyn, New York and the Niger Delta. In addition to her art Saro-Wiwa runs her own contemporary art gallery, Boys’ Quarters Project Space, in Port Harcourt. She also works with food to tell stories and transform histories by creating recipes and staging feast performances. In her photography and film the personal and the political are often inextricably linked, with the artist often exploring highly personal experiences while still bringing cross-cultural and environmental/geographic considerations to bear on these articulations between inner experience and outward performance.
The Invisible Man is a modern take on a traditional mask of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria to which Saro-Wiwa belongs, created by the artist. It depicts the men that have disappeared in her life through death or through their own design. Brother, father (reknowned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa), lovers, and illusive Ogele dancers feature on the Janus-faced mask. The black and white face represents the sadness of loss while the lined pink face symbolises the anger associated with abandonment. Saro-wiwa’s masks, unlike traditional Ogoni masks which are usually worn by men, are worn by women only.