Joana Choumali's series "Hââbré, The Last Generation" traces the final remnants of a dying tradition. The Kô language word means "writing," but also stands for the practice of scarification that's common to West Africa. Followers of the custom place superficial incisions on their skin, using stones, glass or knives, amounting to permanent body decoration that communicates a myriad of cultural expressions.
Ms. K. Djeneba, shop owner, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “People find it pretty, but I think it's ugly. We are not like others. In the past, when you had a smooth face, you were rejected! I used to like my scars; they were beautiful. We used to brag about them. But, now, in the city, it is definitely out of fashion. You are called names like 'torn face' and it hurts.”
"Scarification almost always happens in a culture where there is so much melanin in skin that it would be difficult to see a tattoo," Vince Hemingson, a writer and filmmaker who's studied body-modification, explained to National Geographic. From Papua New Guinea to Ethiopia, the cuts and scarring can symbolize identity in a number of ways, whether it be status within a community, passage into adulthood or a connection to a spiritual group.
Choumali, based in Abidjan, Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, encountered scarification as a child in the 1980s. "I remember Mr. Ekra, the driver who took me to school. Ekra had large scars that marked his face from temple to chin," she recalled to HuffPost. "I found these fascinating geometric shapes. Ekra was not an exception. It was common to see people of various scars proudly display their social origins."
Mr. Mien Guemi, painter, from Ouro Bono, Burkina Faso. "I was a kid, but I still remember the wounds on me. When you didn't have them, your friends would laugh at you, and put you aside. During wars, Mossie and Ko tribes would recognize each other, and therefore avoid killing one another. It was a way of recognition. When you would look for work, no one would ask you where you're coming from... It is already done, and I like them. I cannot change. No need for an ID card, I already wear my identity on my face. This is the reason why people did it: to recognize one another. But now, this is over. We can no more be recognized."
But as she grew older, the practice gradually began to disappear. In fact, those who bore scars in honor of their clan, their family, their tribe or their village were met with judgment in the expanding urban areas. Pressure from religious and state authorities to "modernize," coupled with the introduction of clothing in tribes, led to fewer and fewer instances of forced or voluntary scarification. Choumali wondered why an accepted and valued form of cultural identification became unacceptable and devalued. How does something become the cause of shame after being the norm?
"I remember Mr. Konabé, this tailor I knew since my teens, who wore scars. I decided to ask him what he felt... He was proud of [the scars] in his youth, [but they] became the object of ridicule, demeaning nicknames."
Boudo B., 45, taxi driver, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “It was fashionable at some point. Today, if there was a way to erase them, I would... It is not easy to hit on girls with that. Especially, the Ivorians. I think it is not very attractive."
“Our parents did this not to get lost in life," Mr. Konabé explained to her. "If you saw someone with the same marks on their faces, you would approach them because you knew you were related in some way. Today, those who moved to the city do not want to do it because they are teased. [Scarification] was done to me by force… I was eight years old. If there was a way to take them off, lots of people would remove their scars.”
Choumali's studio portraits do not answer her questions, necessarily. Rather, they simply document the last generation of people who understand the cultural significance better than her. From image to image, she captures both individual graphic aesthetics and the personal narratives that go along with them. "Hââbré is the last generation that lives with scars on his face," she added. "I make this series not to forget."
Mrs. Sinou, shop owner, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “I was born in Ghana. My aunt took me to the village, and they did the scars without my father’s consent. My father was upset. When you go out, and get into trouble, the main insult people use to hurt you is 'scarred.' I refuse to do it to my children. This will stay on my face only.”
Mr. Konabé, tailor, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso.
Mr. Sinou, tailor, Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “Children no longer want to have it done. In the village, it is acceptable, but here it is embarrassing. If we could remove them, we would. One is embarrassed, because so different from the others.”
Mr. Lawal E., hairdresser, Yoruba tribe from Nigeria. “I am proud of my traces. I like them because I am heir. The King has the same scars. I am part of the royal family in my village. It is here in town that I am 'nobody.' In the village, I am a noble; people bow down when they see my face! I am proud of that.”
Salbre S., gardener, Bissa tribe from Burkina Faso. “I am a retired man now. I was very young… I do not want this for my children. We are the last generation. You won’t find people under 40 who have scarifications.”
Pousnouaga S., 45, gardener, Bissa tribe from Burkina Faso. “One of my aunts did it to me. We paid with shea butter or guinea fowls. It does not please me, and it belongs to the past. It was like an identity card in my family. Each tribe has their scars.”
Ms. Martina Kaboré, 39, housewife, from Ouemkanga, Burkina Faso. “When I was 10 years, I asked for them. I wanted to be like my brothers and sisters, and to show that I am courageous. I was very eager. I liked them. I did not feel pain, because I really wanted them. Times have changed, but it’s okay. When people see me and point at me I stand tall and I am proud. I had them done on my first son, he was 18. I would do to have them done on my second child, but my husband disagrees.”
Ms. Kouya Benin, housewife Ko tribe from Burkina Faso. “People would go in groups to get their scarifications, and I went with my friends… Now, these practices are prohibited by law in Burkina Faso."
All images and captions courtesy of Joana Choumali.