Italian-Senegalese, photographer and multimedia artist Maïmouna Guerresi on identity, Islamic faith, and female representation.
Described as the ‘Sufi Frida Kahlo’, Maïmouna Guerresi’s iconic figurative photographs are celebrated for their ethereal beauty and the message of global unity they sing. In a rich tapestry of cultural and religious allusion, her works weave together the Afro-Asian symbolism, Catholic iconography, and contemporary cultural comment, speaking of a shared humanity beyond borders. Raised by a deeply religious Catholic family, she found her true spiritual calling after journeying to Senegal where her eyes were opened to the mystic traditions of West African Islam.
After her conversion, she adopted a new name, a new identity, and her artistic practice turned its gaze towards started to take a spiritual path. Tracing her personal relationship with her newfound faith and her place in the world as a Muslim woman, her work returns to the image of the feminine divine. In places where women have historically been marginalised, she celebrates their cosmic power and demands that they command respect and representation. In conversation with the artist, we speak about female strength, faith and solidarity.
Below Left – ‘Suprise
TBE: How did your conversion from Catholicism to Islam come about?
My encounter with Sufism stretches back several years to a trip I took to Senegal. In the city of Touba, I met and joined the Muride confraternity, embracing the teachings of the religious leader Cheikh Amadou Bamba. I was drawn to Islamic spirituality by a natural attraction and a thirst for knowledge.
TBE: And how has your renewed sense of spirituality manifest in your life and work?
For the Murid confraternity, work is an integral part of religion and it’s understood as a form of spiritual perfection and prayer consecrated to God. I felt the urge to express the emotions I had experienced visiting these holy places through my art.
Looking at my work, I want the viewer to step into an emotional journey, where the symbology, intertwined with the formal and spiritual aspects of the work, creates an elevated, ecstatic state of existential reflection. I continue to walk a difficult path, struggling against preconceptions and clichés about Islam, and trying to represent a concept of beauty that combines ethics, aesthetics, and religion.
I continue to walk a difficult path, struggling against preconceptions and clichés about Islam.
I think that women, in general, have a great task ahead of them-that of improving society, Muslim women, in particular, can be of great help towards the spiritual growth of the world.
TBE: As a woman and a Muslim, why is it important that your work represents female figures of divinity?
Through my work I intend to interpret the different aspects related to Muslim spirituality, offering a much needed democratic and pluralistic vision of Islam. The history of Islam has witnessed several female characters that have emerged thanks to their intellectual, spiritual and artistic gifts. But unfortunately, in the course of history, they ended up in the oblivion of collective memory. This is where my strength comes in to continue my artistic research. I would like to erase male arrogance in interpreting divine science and give voice to those who have been forgotten or cannot be heard.
(Left: ‘The Virgin of the Light’)
My work articulates by affirming the spiritual value of the Muslim woman in Islamic and Western society, with the intention of highlighting her socio-cultural qualities. I think it is important to affirm the spiritual value of the Muslim woman and her ability to act as a guide to the Quranic teachings. This affirmation is a reflection of the egalitarian ethics dictated by the Islamic law, which have to be conformed to contemporary social developments in order to create a just society.
I would like to erase male arrogance in interpreting divine science and give voice to those who have been forgotten or cannot be heard.
‘Notre Dame Avec Les Gagoulle’
TBE: And as women, what are the greatest responsibilities we have to ourselves and others?
I think every woman should demand respect for herself and her work. Most importantly, they should learn the importance of solidarity among them and their spiritual and intellectual strength. These values that should be based on the principles of gender equality. I often portray the image of the African Muslim woman. A metaphor, or more accurately a symbolic value, of women’s strength. Women who – through their own identity – are able to dissolve the existing gender distinction between male and female, women capable of radiating feminine energy – an intuitive, sensitive, and fluid force.
Every woman should demand respect for herself and her work.
TBE: We are facing an interesting time for women, with greater visibility and representation in conversations that were once closed. What are the challenges that you have noticed women face in the art world?
The presence and role of women in art have become increasingly prominent, and the art scene has been enriched by talented female artists from all over the world. But, more has to be done, as female artists definitely don’t have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
Generally speaking, female artists still lack visibility. More specifically, women, black women, especially face economic, socio-political, and family challenges that cut short their potential for success. Not to mention the fact that black female artists on the continent don’t have the same travel opportunities as do African diasporic artists with European and American passports. Being able to assert your rights and raise your social status are the keys that will open up your world.
(Above: ‘The Virgin of the Book’)
What matters the most is the ability to be open-minded, to embrace new ideas, and to forgive yourself and others.
TBE: What makes you feel empowered?
As a person, what empowers me and keeps me safe are the relationships nourished with the people close to me. As an artist, I always feel a sense of confidence and empowerment when I exhibit a new body of work created over a long period of time.
TBE: And finally, can you share an important lesson with our readers?
New meanings and lessons always unveil to you in the course of your life. Experience helps you navigate through challenges, but it is not enough. What matters the most is the ability to be open-minded, to embrace new ideas, and to forgive yourself and others.
Explore how myths help us tackle the complex questions of life and bring us closer to ourselves.
Maïmouna Guerresi is an Italo-Senegalese multimedia artist working with photography, sculpture, video, and installation. She was born in Italy and graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. Maïmouna turned to photography after a period of experimentation with painting and drawing. Early in her career, she was invited to show in the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1982 and 1986), the Rome Quadrennial (1986), as well as at Documenta K18 (1987) in Kassel, Germany. Maïmouna has been extensively exhibited in solo and group shows all over Europe, Africa, the United States, Asia, and the Middle East. Maïmouna lives and works between Italy and Senegal.