Genitilla Al Wilada
Maimouna Guerresi’s work focuses on the relationship between women and society with particular reference to those countries in which the role of women is most marginalized. For over twenty years Guerresi’s work has been about empowering women and bringing together individuals and cultures in an appreciation for a context of shared humanity, beyond borders – psychological, cultural, and political. She uses recurrent metaphors such as milk, light, the hijab, trees, and contrasting white on black to create awareness of the vital unifying qualities of the feminine archetype and its special healing potential.
Guerresi’s art is uniquely authentic. Her work is inspired by personal experience and cultural contexts that reference universal myths, the sacred realm, and the female condition, all of which are seen as vital expressions of the human form: an essentially spiritual and mystic body. Through photographs and videos of silent, austere, veiled women in domestic scenes and individual poses, her work functions as both metaphor and provocation. Guerresi’s images are delicate narratives with fluid sequencing, as well as rational analyses: women dressed in white, enveloped in chadors, fixed within their own tradition and isolated from and by it in the contemporary world.
Maimouna Guerresi interviewed by Niccolò Fano
The symbolic nature of Maimouna’s work has always fascinated me as it raises numerous questions rather than propose obvious statements and ideas. Luckily I had the pleasure of catching up with Maimouna during her most recent visit to Rome. We agreed to meet near Piazza Giuochi Delfici, on the north side of the capital at an apartment owned by one of her collectors. My assistant Flavia Cortonicchi and I were greeted at the door by Maimouna’s reassuring smile. She kindly showed us around the rooms impeccably adorned with a number of her prints, providing the perfect setting for the discourse that follows. Although somewhat curious and slightly anxious about what person I would encounter, Maimouna proved to be extremely open and accessible, making the interview process a less formal exercise than usual.
In this interview I talk to Maimouna about her multifaceted practice, her personal life-changing choices and her most recent work in India that is currently touring the subcontinent’s galleries under the title of Inner Space.
Niccolò Fano: It almost seems impossible to discuss your work without detailing your life changing conversion to Islam, more specifically the Sufi adherent Murid community in 1991. How influential was this change for your artistic expression?
Maimuna Guerresi: Following my encounter with Muridism in Senegal and my conversion to Islam, I felt the need to express this change in my life and my renewed spiritual path through my art. I tried to reveal and then to represent the sensations and emotions elicited by my visits to the holy sites and by my encounters with the great representatives of Muslim Africa.
NF: Sufism embraces the inner, mystical qualities of Islam. What attracted you to the Murid community?
MG: Muridism is the passion, the strength of faith to reach God. I got to know Muridism through the teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba and of Cheikh Ibra Fall, the two prominent saints who founded this movement, a recent arm of Islam linked to the traditional Sufi philosophy. These two saints are mutually supportive. I may say metaphorically that Cheikh Ibra Fall is the path to know God’s universe, while Cheikh Amadou Bamba is the universe.
NF: What are the artistic and cultural challenges encountered by a Muslim woman born and raised in Italy, a prevalently Catholic and highly traditional nation?
MG: Very challenging in terms of my family, my life and my art. The first challenge was with myself in trying to grow, to nourish this new faith through practice and readings. At that time, the artistic community was quite hostile and diffident about this change. This allowed me to think that my choice would be my jihad, which literally means ‘effort’. In my case, the effort to tolerate, to be misunderstood and to lead other people to understand another point of view not linked to the stereotypes on Islam.
NF: In Sufism, as you have mentioned in previous interviews, women are strong and far from subdued, something that translates vibrantly in your work. How much misconception is propagated, in your opinion by the media today regarding the role and image of Muslim women?
MG: I actually wanted to use my art to challenge the stereotyped image of women in Islam conveyed by Western media: women who are subjugated and vilified. In the history of Islam, there are many examples of women renowned for their holiness or even for their culture. And, due to my personal experience, I felt the need to represent Muslim women starting from African women.
NF: Your work seems to have an underlining reference to catholic iconography alongside primary Islamic motifs. In interviews you cite classical Italian artists such as Piero della Francesca and Canova as references. How relevant have these classical figures been for you?
MG: In my work, I try not only to express a concept, but I am interested in representing the balance of shapes, of bodies and postures of people in my photographs, of signs or writings in the backdrop of my pictures. In Islam, the balance and harmony of signs and shapes are the essential expression of divine beauty and harmony. I am fascinated by the Italian artists who can better express this concept, such as Canova, Antonello da Messina and Piero della Francesca. The latter, in particular, in addition to the golden balance of shapes, has depicted the concept of metaphysics which is the basis of Islamic philosophy.
NF: As seen in your early work Sisters, (one of your most intimate series), the personal choice of religious belief and the duplicity induced by a late radical shift rather than an early cultural imposition, takes centre stage. What are the challenges of visually conveying these autobiographical aspects and experiences?
MG: The series Sisters (2001 to 2006) has been inspired by my life experience. It is a photographic story of the daily life of my two daughters Marlene and Adji born from two fathers from a different nation, culture and religion. A metaphoric representation of how to possibly reconcile different cultures and religions, where their mother becomes the glue of this symbolic union, even through she appears in only one photograph.
NF: Your practice is multifaceted. Throughout the years, Video, Installation, Sculpture and Photography have been amongst your mediums of choice whilst Performance Art and Body Art were the main focus in the early part of your career. What is the link between these mediums and your most recent focus on photography? Whilst the aesthetic similarities visibly transcend the choice of medium; how do these disciplines interact, inform and complement each other?
MG: I use different expressive languages, from sculpture, to photography and video-installations. Sometimes, my sculptures are staged in my photographs or I present my sculptures together with photographic images, thus creating a more circular language, an interaction across different mediums. My pictures are like a theatrical set, an art theatre in which I create garments, objects, painted backdrops, which I erase like a mandala, to paint them again for another scene. They are linked to the poses and to the hieratic gestures of my characters. It is fundamental for the results of my shots not to represent a person donning a garment, but a mystical and transcendental character.
NF: The sculptural aspect of your work seems to blend into your photographs with the careful choice and structure of the garments showcased. Tell us about this visual feature and the approach you have towards the curation of the subject’s look.
MG: I wish to use my shots to represent surreal and metaphysical characters or situations created by my imagination and by my sensations. The result is almost an abstraction.. The people in my photographs are my friends, often members of my family, ordinary people who become the interpreters and the actors of my visions. They are no longer people but they are emotions, architectures, spaces, universes, galaxies, new and different worlds. They are no longer weighed down by reality. They interpret buoyancy, lightness, flying, fragility and they embody a new vision of an artistic and philosophic thought.
NF: As you mentioned most of the people photographed are friends and family members. Do you work from a specific location? What is the process behind the construction of your mise en scenes?
MG: Many of my photographs are created in my studio – my house in Italy and my family’s home in Senegal where the terrace on the roof is a stunning set with beautiful natural light and the old walls that serve as backdrops for my portraits of African people interpreted by my friends and family members. In my India work I took as inspiration the country’s architecture, structures such as the Taj Mahal, in order to create minaret hat shaped artefacts that I aptly titled Taj Minaret and Jama Minaret that I then have my sitters wear. The result as you can see is a tall and thin photograph. I also created some architecture garments worn by Indian models that posed for my series Indian Giants. The backdrop is where my work starts, I paint on these surfaces with coloured soil, tar and other materials, to that I add text, invocations and drawings. I then prepare my scene and the clothes that the sitter will wear. The whole process must result in a metaphysical and somewhat supernatural effect, distancing itself from a simple photograph of a model dressed up and becoming more of a hieratic and metaphysical persona.
NF: Your exhibition Inner Space – currently touring across India – encompasses numerous themes that have translated into Indian iconography while retaining the features of your previous aesthetic and subject matter. What is the underlining concept and common thread that connects one body of work to the next, independently of location and time frame?
MG: My research on the mystical body was born in Africa with the African Muslim mystical representatives. I wanted to adopt the same approach in India, with Indian icons. The common thread is religious syncretism that binds different religions with the culture and traditions of different continents. The garments and the colours play a fundamental role in portraits, because they provide an identity and a geographical location to the characters. But the photographic approach and the message conveyed unite them in the same spiritual identity.
NF: Of particular interest to me are the recurring larger than life Giants and their literal/metaphorical black portals referencing in some cases religious architectural structures. Are these the gateways for what you describe as inner space?
MG: The spiritual Giants are a series of portraits with the names of ancient Saints. These characters with dark faces are great spiritual guides, ancestral icons, where aesthetics and ethics merge in a mystical spiritual renewal. The appearance of depth and void that I create through an architectural structure represents the cosmic (and space) infinity, for example the photo entitled Genitilla Al Wilada, a composite name which means both a female pagan celebration and a woman in labour wearing a sculpture-garment with a large black hole in the centre gurgling bubbles like many new and light worlds.
NF: Similar to the recurrence of The Giants, other less obvious visual details can be found throughout your aesthetic development: The symbolic placement of hand gestures and the use of the circular image, both as a shape for the final presentation (Black Oracle and The Mountains) and as a natural shape to the swirling movement as seen in Indian Cosmos. Guide us through the use and repetition of these characterizing elements.
MG: The Cosmos work came from the idea to leave the square or rectangular shape of photographs so as to create a multitude of objects starting from a single one. The first was Black Cosmos, round pictures of various sizes which represent a female character, viewed from above, wearing a black garment and spinning counter-clockwise, as in the Sufi mystical dance. Then I thought about Red Cosmos, from the colour of Indian women’s bindi, in which the characters spin so quickly that their image becomes completely abstract, as if it is a planet on fire or a dot.
NF: You have stated the interest in exposing similarities rather than differences: In the hypermediatic and fast paced era we live in today, hybridisation or ‘contamination’ (as you have described it in previous interviews) between cultures and religions seems to be accelerating exponentially. How much of an influence are these themes for you?
MG: I am interested in the red thread that links cultures, in finding and emphasizing the similarities among religions. Fatima, for example, is the name of a Saint both for Muslims and for Christians. And I have represented her as a character with a dark, sweet and merciful face. The Sikhs have fascinated me because of their strong contamination with the Islamic tradition, even though intertwined with Hindu motifs. This explains why their founder was Guru Nanak, a great Sufi master.
NF: As an artist who has made work in India and about India, I have found it very hard to call a project or body of work ‘finished’, given the magnitude of the subject matter offered. Is your work there complete?
MG: India is fascinating and I hope I will go back very soon to acquire new sensations and experiences. I don’t think I am going to close a work theme. I just want to make it rest and, in the meantime, I would like to open up a new one. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I don’t intend to give up certain themes only because I have already used them… so I don’t know exactly what I am going to do. My work is first conceived in my head and then it is transformed into a photograph. Of course I need the stimuli coming from new encounters, sensations and emotions. But often, it is the image that wants to be born and to be represented… even before having seen it … The creative effort is something mysterious and very intimate and it is beyond rational control.
Maimouna Patrizia Guerresi (1951) is a photographer, sculptor, video and installation artist. Her work originates from conceptual experiments inspired by the 1970’s Body Art movement. In 1991, Maimouna travelled to various African countries and converted to Islam, subsequently adopting the name of Maimouna . This marked a change in identity and direction in regards to her work that started to focus on recurring themes of multicultural symbolism and feminine spirituality.
Maimouna’s art has been exhibited across the globe in numerous galleries, museums and festivals including:
The Venice Biennale (1982, 1986, 2011), Mudima Foundation (Milan, Italy. 1999), Levy Gallery (Madrid, Spain. 2000), Museum of Contemporary Art III (Atlanta, USA. 2004), Dakar Off Biennale (Dakar, Senegal. 2004), Spazio Teca Gallery (Verona, Italy 2006), Biennale Africaine de la Photographie “Les Rencontres de Bamako “ Musèe National (Bamako, Mali. 2009), Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro (Milan, Italy. 2010), Li-Space (Beijing, China. 2011),M.I.A Galleria Paola Colombari (Milan, Italy 2011), Photo & Contemporary Gallery at Artissima Art Fair (Turin, Italy) and Paris Photo 2012, Tasveer Gallery (India, 2013).
Maimouna currently lives and works near Verona in Monteforte d’Alpone, and Milan, Italy.