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Interview with Choumali

The process is like I usually have an idea or a feeling that I want to get through and I have a general idea of what imagery will work with that, then I’ll do my research, which is the next thing. It usually starts with words, I’ll write out a particular word I’m thinking of, an idea or a concept and then I’ll go through it, research through it. Let’s take a word like transparency for instance, I’ll go through it and research by trying to find articles, writings; I use a lot of research in philosophy and psychology. I kind of work through writings and people’s articles or books I’ve been reading and kind of start with quotes. Then I do image research around so that images will start to form better in my head and then I’ll know what I want it to look like; because I already have the idea in my head, I’ll go through the internet or magazines or pictures that I’ve taken to get the right, exact image that will fit the feeling. That’s basically the next step, just going through all these countless images and fixing them all together. And then, I’ll start the process of cutting*_____whatever programme I’m using, like Photoshop mostly. I’ll start with clogging things together and using the images I initially sourced in my own photography to get the image started and then along the way, if something changes or isn’t quite right, then I’ll go back and find another image. But usually because I have a strong sense of what I want it to look like, I know exactly what image I’m looking for and so I find it, insert it or cut it out…

So, you play around with some historical images?

Some of the imagery I use is historic but a lot of them are fashion imagery (contemporary art and contemporary fashion.) I use a lot of fashion models, not because I think they’re any more beautiful, it’s just the idea of almost like a recognizable feature or face, maybe the fact that it’s contemporary; that will bring the idea together in a way. So, I tend to use fashion models a lot, like pretty faces. A lot of my work has been portraits, colour portraits, or portrait piece together of different people that make up this version of myself.

So, it’s a kind of you?

Yes, everything is a kind of me but I use those other people to put those pieces of me together.

Do you work in series?

Yes. Recently, I have been. Though, sometimes I just do one image.

Is this body of work a series?

This one has 3 that are part of the larger series of the 5 and then 2 of them are in different random.

The 3 are part of one series. How many do you have altogether in that series?

There are about 8 and there’s writing as well. So, it’s like a combination of images, video and writing.

So, you have a flair for writing as well?

Yes, in a way. It’s not that I think that I’m a great writer. It’s just that there’s a particular thing that I feel or want to express that comes out through the images. I feel like that’s a great expression. On the other hand, there are other expressions that come out through writing and that’s the mode through which they need to be expressed. So, it’s not that I necessarily think that I’m the best writer. They all fit in together in some way; there are pieces that need to be read and otherwise.

Tell me more about this larger series. What’s the title of the series?

The title is love ___________
What does it mean? It’s quite long but I’ll try to make it short. It’s when there’s love but on the other hand, it’s not returned.

Any personal experience?

Yes, there’s one that’s a personal experience.

Can you tell us?

Yes.

I’m looking for scoops… I like to write things that are not in the press releases. *That’s why we have a one on one; so, I could ask questions and write something different. Otherwise, all the writers are going to write the same things especially the lazy ones. I’ve just been exploring love in general. I’ve been questioning things I’ve been told, taught, what people say about love, traditionally also in just like a colloquial sense like in friendship. And not just like that but like taking all those things and figuring out what they actually mean to me, what they mean in my personal experience, why are they the way they are?
What it is really to me and to my experience, aside from all the definitions of love in movies and all that stuff. So, I’ve been exploring what love means to me, with my personal experiences. So, yes, that came from personal experience. It’s been good and bad but nothing is truly good and nothing’s truly bad. The bad is not necessarily sad, it’s more like a question. Is it really true to love someone and the person doesn’t love you back or can love be like that? So, that’s the kind of question I’ve been
asking with that series.

*________would you also in the same work, give your opinion?

I think sometimes, it can be an opinion but it also can just be that it’s an expression and then because it’s coming from a personal experience, coming from a soulful place, I think that’s why other people have been able to relate to it. I don’t know if anyone knows or cares which piece is which.

Will you be able to tell me?

Yes.

With the full title, the series, you mentioned the other ones. What are they about?

In the other ones, there’s a video projection that’s more like an identity kind of study. It’s not formal, it’s more like exploring colours and nature; I’m trying to bring in the natural aspect to digital. So, that’s where that one came from. My brain is everywhere but I know what’s in there. One is like an expression but the other one is a personal experience, it was a self-portrait; I’m in the piece but you can’t really tell but there’s a photo of me in there. That one comes from the series that I did called Suffering is a Mystery. It actually started when I was reading the book of Job and I was just thinking about my life and my experience here and trying to make sense of hard times, good times and exploring all those things. It’s like a few other things and video involved in those series but that main image is like the self-portrait part of that whole series.

You told the teenager that as well?

I think she knows. I can’t remember when I told her but I’m sure I did… She knows everything.
I’ll look at the images again and I may have one or two more questions via email or phone. Hope you don’t mind? No, I don’t. That sounds good.

The series I’m showing is _______. It’s
about the beauty standard in the Senegalese society.

Are you from Cote d’Ivoire or Senegal?

I’m from Cote d’Ivoire.

But this is from Senegal?

Yes, this is from Senegal. I started thinking about this project on Facebook while I was always seeing pictures of these Senegalese women with very fair foundation on their faces with the colour of the foundation and powder appearing lighter than their actual body colour and the way their fellow Africans would criticize and make fun of them on social media and I wondered why the critics were so mean towards these women. So, I tried, first of all, to understand why, how and when this started. I got contacts of some Senegalese women and went to shoot some documentary pictures in Dakar, Senegal. Then, I decided to use my information to do mixed media composition. I also design jewellery, so, I felt the need to incorporate my designs and designing skills in a series. I’m a photographer, I draw, paint. But for many years, I hid that part of me in order to focus on photography and be accepted and known as a photographer. Now that I feel more at ease with being a photographer, I feel the need to go further by using my other skills. I’m accepting myself better as a woman, trying to find answers to my own questions; especially identity questions that I ask myself sometimes. I’m feeling more ‘me’, so, I’m trying to embrace all the parts of my personality and designing jewellery and beads with working with so many little beads. This work is time consuming and I have to be meticulous. I’ve accepted that now and I try to inculcate it in my creative work. The series is in 3 parts: the documentary pictures, interview videos (in French but subtitled in English). For the documentary pictures, in this exhibition, there’s a presentation of 4 women out of photo shoot with 9 women. These women don’t wear make up everyday, they are simple and normal with beautiful skin types. When I first saw the pictures of these women on the internet, I thought they bleached their skin or that they had inferiority complex with their skin colour. But that’s not the case; they just use the make up during ceremonies, just to shine in the society and the louder the better for them. I found out that they actually know what they are doing; it’s just a show off in order to attract men, to impress the other women and also to empower themselves. For example, this woman named *Bombi says that if she doesn’t appear perfect in appearance, she would rather not go to a ceremony. She believes it’s important to shine. She says she has to measure up to exist in a society that’s largely polygamous and complex. So, they have to disguise in order to confront other people in the society. My idea of make up has changed because I started seeing it as a form of art, the way they staged themselves to exist in the society and change their appearance (like a social mask).
Another lady, *Mami, a Sociologist, said she doesn’t like this kind of make up but during some occasions, like a wedding ceremony, she has to do it so that it would be said that she respects the ceremony and that she did her best to honour the bride.
This is a salon.

They have a lot of this in Senegal?

Yes, they have many make up salons, like the hair salon, but strictly for make up.

Cote d’Ivoire as well?

Not at all. In Senegal, they have this especially for simple people and in popular neighbourhoods. The surprising thing is that the educated Senegalese women and those who have travelled abroad and are back home condemn this kind of make up because they think it’s ghetto, trashy and not respectable. Many of them think these women don’t know who they are and that they have a complex. Interestingly though, this make up goes with the traditional attires. Most of them only apply this make up when there’s a ceremony and it has to match their outfit.
Here is Fatuh, with her husband. Her husband likes her make up and he’s really proud of her. In the video, she says that sometimes men tell them how beautiful they look in their costumes. So, it’s integrated in their culture that the make up is only to shine in the society. On the other hand, they are not bothered to see the women without make up. They know that it’s only for the show.
I shot the documentary pictures in the studio. These are photo compositions, they picked their own outfits and I designed some camels frames made by the traditional tailors. This is a bazin, which is the most expensive one that I shot. Then I did the beading on the embroidery that I shot. Afterwards, I made a photo collage of the picture, the environment and the embroidery. I wanted it to be presented the way they want to be seen in the society and it was important for me that they would like the pictures and for them to recognize themselves in their dream image. They don’t want to be natural, the natural is for home. When they go out, they want to be perfect. There’s a popular expression among them, when translated in
English it means “I want to make it more than good”.
This is Mami. You saw her earlier. She has a clever opinion of these women. The Senegalese make up is much talked about all over West Africa as withdrawing the features and putting so much powder. The bright powder is important for shine and a lot of eye shadow too.
This is Fatuh, the one you saw with her husband.
This is ____. She’s a housemaid but when you see her outside of her work______.

Do you want to see the video?

Sure.

Is it part of the show as well?

No. It’s just a home video… I did it only to summarize what they were saying; the way they think… it’s just a casual conversation.
Spell your surname. Choumali.
-Watching the video
She doesn’t feel guilty

What’s her name?

Teres
Translates a saying- “You don’t have to be left aside. You have to measure up always.” It’s surprising that they are so sure that what they’re doing is right, that you can’t even criticize them.
See the difference between the face and the body.
This is a real fashion faux pas in New York but here, it’s important to be like that.
She’s convinced that this is what attracts men.

Is she married?

Yes, she’s an assistant in a company. She knows what she’s doing but it’s the society that defines what is ridiculous or not.
In _________ shows, even in theatres in Europe or France, they apply the make up to get noticed from afar.
Is this the sister? Yes… She’s different from her sister in that she’s convinced that it’s a good thing. She isn’t sure but since she belongs in this society, she has to find a balance. She wears make up only for the ceremonies.
Another interesting thing is that they are like ______. I make comparison between the _______ that women used to put on their faces in the 16th and 17th century and also the Japanese geishas and also the *gangulu girls in Tokyo who do the contrary they use darker foundation to look tanned, and lighter colours around the eyes to stand out too. Also, you have women in the selrer and peulh culture where women used to put yellow powder on their faces as traditional make up. We came to understand that maybe it’s a tradition that merged with the western make up.

Is this make up western?

Yes, it’s western but it’s redesigned their way.
Where do they purchase this? It’s imported. They purchase it in Senegal. The most vibrant colours come from China. It’s very cheap, a big palette may cost like $1,000.

So, they don’t use the big products?

No, they don’t. That’s what she’s saying. She makes her own combinations. She used the eye shadow on her lips and applied the lipgloss on it.
The brighter the better? Yes, the brighter the better.
I also did an installation for the show.

Today? On the internet?

Yes. It’s not finished.

How long is the video?

15 to 20 minutes. The estimation is the conceptual materialization of the adornment they use to show off and to shine in the society. I used the frames that you saw on the picture, the real, physical frames would be installed on box and mirror. And I made some _____ with beads 2,000 times around.

2,000?

Yes a little more but 2,000 on the frames. It will be on the mirror so that people can see themselves in their own truth.

So, do you have make up, so people can try?

No, it’s just the image.
I want to show you some pictures.
Was this body of works produced for this exhibition or is it something you’ve been working on before now? No, I’ve been working on it before.

Is that you?

Yes, it’s me.
It’s over size. The more it glitters the better it looks. Also, these beads are the ones they use on the baya, that is, the beads worn around the waist, used to seduce men.

Does it work?

Laughs… I don’t know. I guess so. It works on Senegalese men because they grew to know that. I think what arouses their desire is also cultural. I was told that when men hear the sound of the beads when the women are walking, the men are sexually aroused. It is also interesting to know that seduction is also something imaginary. Now, she says that Senegalese men are looking for perfection.
They have a weakness for light skinned women, which is why some women end up bleaching their skin.

Apart from the language, does Cote d’Ivoire share similar culture with Senegal?

Maybe the northern part of Cote d’Ivoire.

Are you from that part?

No, I’m from the West, the border between Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Are you a Christian?

Yes, I am.
Not that organized. Some women may bleach their skin or put fairer make up.

Do you live in Senegal?

No but I’ve been there.

Did you conduct the interviews in Senegal?

Yes.

How close is Senegal to Cote d’Ivoire?

We have a big community of the Senegalese in Cote d’Ivoire. Most of them sell in the market.
So, you went specifically to the community. Yes. I am amazed by the Senegalese culture. I think that it’s so full of contradiction. It’s a very religious society yet there is also a lot of sin. They are also very epicurean and there are lots of codes you have to understand in order to be accepted. I also like the fact that they have a strong culture, they all speak one language: French, which is not the case in Abidjan.

Do you live in Abidjan?

No, I live in Kukuti, in a residential area.

How long have you been working on this?

6 months. Though I’ve been doing my research for some time before the work started. I wrote a text with Sociologists before I started. I did picture research about the gangulos, make up in the 16th and 17th century. I also looked for contacts before coming.

So how long did the whole work take?

6 months. But the series is still in process.
How many pictures in the whole series? I would like 12 or 15 pictures.

Do you have 12 now?

No, I have 9.

So, like 3 more?

Yes 3 more. And I would like to go back to witness a ceremony. When I went there, I made friends with the women.

What part of Senegal is this?

This is Pikine in Dakar.

Is this practice peculiar to Pikine?

No, it’s practiced all over Dakar but I only went to Goree Island and Pikine.
Isn’t Goree the Island known with slavery? Exactly. What was really amazing was the way I was received when I met the women. Prior to that time, we only communicated via email. I think accepting me was easy because I am a woman and I also connected with them at some point as regards make up.

Were you able to speak with the men to confirm what they said?

I spoke with the husband of the woman in the picture and he said he’s proud of his wife. According to him, on their wedding day, his wife’s make up was too much. He said, “They used too much plaster that I couldn’t recognize my wife.” When you look at the make up she applied on the picture, you would think it’s too much but he thinks it’s fine.
Do you use make up? Yes, I do but not always. I just learnt to use make up about 2 years ago.
That’s not how you got your husband. Am I right? No, I got him with my personality. I hope.
Your hair stands you out. Yes.

Is that part of your thing?

Yes. I think it’s part of the process of accepting myself.
I asked because I want to tie everything in a story. The story I have in my head is this: You have many talents- you’re a painter, you take photographs and you do jewellery. For a long time, you’ve struggled to make sure you’re accepted as a photographer and your plan was to come out first as a photographer, then later on practice other things.

Now, is your hair part of carving yourself?

Yes.

So, can I relate your hair to what the women are doing with make up?

Yes.

So, this is kind of your reality?

You identify with these women in finding a way of bringing themselves out. Yes because I can imagine that my hairstyle can shock some people. Some very conservative people would ask why, and I’m a mother and wife. My husband isn’t in the art line, he is an IT Manager and he’s classy. I see people’s facial expression at times and I can tell they want to ask, “Is this your wife for real?”
I’d like a picture of your hair. Okay.
For the make up, I had very drastic acne when I was 30 years old, after I had my kids and it was very annoying. So, I couldn’t understand why it had to be me, at that age and not a teenager. So, I burst it and didn’t want to wear make up in order not to damage my skin. When the acne dried up, I learnt to use make up with a professional make up artist, the one who works with me on most of my shootings. I have learnt to see myself again as a beautiful woman and also to use my makeup more or less, according to the places that I go. When I first started practicing on my own face, I wanted it to look perfect, always on point. Afterwards, I got tired of it and I started asking why it had become so important to me considering that I didn’t know how to use make up for many years. Now, you can see me without make up but you couldn’t have caught me last year without make up.

What has made you stop using make up like that. Do you think it’s your hair?

No, I still use make up but it’s no longer as important to me as it was one year ago.

What’s most important, your hair?

No. Me, My eyes, my personality… At last, I can say though it feels good to look good, it’s not the most important. As I was working on this project, the deeper I got, the less make up I wanted to use. I don’t know why.
56:24 …. To conquer all of that Yes, but it wasn’t something that I was planning. It just happened even if I’m still ___________ this is not important. I won’t die because Oliver came and saw my face without make up and it’s oily because I was all around. One year ago, this wouldn’t have been the case.

When did you start liking make up, was it before you met them?

It was before I met them. 2 years ago.

How old are you now?

I’m 40 years old.

Okay, I’ve got a good story. I think you’ll like my story. I have a story. You want me to tell you my story?

Yes.

This is my story. My story is that: What did you study?

I studied graphic arts in Morocco. Morocco? Interesting. You’ve been everywhere. Not everywhere, but I’d like to be everywhere someday. I’d like to visit every country in Africa. I have a project on that. I must know Africa before I can speak of Africa. I’ve also been to Japan but if you don’t know Malawi, why should you show up? I work on many projects at the same time. I’m working on another project that I will show in November: Lagos Photo. It’s about figure and body image. All the series that I’ve worked on in the past 3 years are the result of a process that I wasn’t so much aware of but the more I see my work, the more I see that it’s a personal process that I’m experiencing on my own and it has helped me grow so much. I don’t know what happened but on my 40th birthday, something changed. I felt more myself, more in my own skin. The part in which I connect the most with these women is that so what? They need to use make up to shine in the society or to be accepted or even as a screen to conceal defect and in polygamous marriage, they have to show the other woman that they are still there even if they cried the previous day, they dress up and they show up. This is not that different from what European women with very good taste do. Why should we criticize them so hard? Something about fashion is that it depends on the context and in this context; it makes sense because there is so much competition. You need to shine and be seen because a woman who isn’t married doesn’t exist and to get noticed in this society in which you can’t show skin, the only area you have to shine is______________________
89. Let me tell you my story. You started off schooling in Morocco, working in an advertising agency but your true love was really photography. You wanted to be known as a photographer. You have other gifts and talent including painting and making jewellery but you spent sometime trying to become the best photographer you could be. You’re married with children and all of that but a major problem happened in your life when you broke down with acne, which you weren’t too pleased about. But of course in the course of your research you found out that you began to use make up to cover up some of the acne. Now, with your hairstyles and all that was part of your process of shining through in your work and you found a close relationship between that and these women in Pikine in Senegal. Then you decided to travel to explore Senegal and found out that they wanted to shine and you tried to find out why they were trying so hard to shine. You interviewed a couple of them, Fatuh, her husband and the rest. Then you found out that the men want perfect women, they attract the men to feel confident, they want to shine, and it’s very competitive, particularly in the polygamous setting. You’ve kind of identified with that and found the story very interesting. You started this series 6 months ago and it’s been a painful process of research including trying to find connections between the African and the Western history, and overtime, you found out that this has helped you to discover yourself and your own reality and you’re even a better person because you’ve seen that you don’t even need to have the hairstyle or to have make up, these days, you don’t even remember because you’ve found out that you’re you and what you need to shine are your eyes, your self, your talent and how good you are at your work.

Last month, for the first time, I posted a picture of myself without make up on instagram. Before now, this would never have happened. For my hairstyle, when I made it, I wasn’t thinking it would be a way to shine. I was making a statement saying, take me as I am, whether you like it or not.

Now or then?

Then. I’ve had this hair cut for 2 years now.

Wasn’t it part of creating your own reality?

Yes, it was part of showing the real me and accepting that it wouldn’t please some people and they may criticize me and think that I’m eccentric. I was okay with that for the first time in my life. It wasn’t to seduce people or to look good but to state that this is who I am, I have part of my head shaved. If you like it, okay; if you don’t like it, no problem.

I’d like to have your card. Do you have a card?

Yes.
I know you’re travelling tomorrow, that’s what we’ll use to__________ I may not be able to come to the show. I’ll try but I have another conflicting engagement but if you give me your card, then I’ll be sure that whatever I’ve written, before it goes to publish, you’ll see it.

Perfect, no problem… So, you won’t see the installation?

I’ll try my best. I may come later.

Can you send me the images?

I need an image of you with__________ and the names of the women, particularly that phrase. There’s another phrase she said at the end of the video, it’s called the tolo. It’s the wow effect. When you get to a ceremony or a party, you have to shine, people must say ooh… aah! Laughs.

If it doesn’t happen?

If it doesn’t happen, you’ve invested so much in other women to make the totin.
There’s so much pressure in them that they really want to perform. If they don’t perform, they don’t exist socially. This is what she says, “I prefer not to go.” Another one said if she doesn’t have money to buy the right clothes and to pay for make up in the salon, they don’t go. When I was there, they just send the gift but they did the make up on my face.

Do you have a picture of that?

No, I don’t want it to be published. She said if you want to take a picture of us, you have to do it to yourself. I was ready to go to a baptism to party with them in the boubou and the scarf. During my next visit, I’d like to stay because they said, “you have no idea what it is.” This is the last sentence of the video- the show is in the party, not the wedding but the party or ceremony in itself; the party in itself is a show. Because, they know that __________ wore this or that yesterday, next day, I’ll do more. It’s a competition but she says, “It’s not competition, we do it for the men.”

It is competition. Yes, it is. Definitely. But in this context, it makes sense. What I would like people, especially Africans to understand is that we don’t know what is happening in our own culture, meanwhile, we are so fast to criticize them. Yet we can say the Japanese are creative when we have our own creativity in our culture as in the case of the Senegalese women and make up. My idea is that Africa should stop apologizing for being Africa. Sometimes, it may appear ridiculous to the Western society but this is what it is. Take it or leave it but because our society has been imitating and it will go on imitating. It is so interesting that now; we can see the interest of the Western world for the African countries because we are creative, we’ve digested what they taught us and have made it our own and so different too. So that’s why they are fascinated. Sometimes Africans wait till the Westerners accept us before we appreciate ourselves. It happened with the nappi* process and the wax fabric. When I was a teenager, I used to wear wax to weddings and people used to tell me that my parents were rich and I shouldn’t be wearing wax fabric that it wasn’t for fancy parties. Now, you see it everywhere because Alicia Keys, Beyonce and Gwen Stefani wore it and now, they say it’s good to wear. I think that we should stop that. Even if sometimes, some things are ridiculous. So what? This is who we are. We don’t have to be the ‘good people’ but just who we are. And this is part of my own process, to accept myself with all the flaws.

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