MOCAfest 2015: Islamic mysticism and women spirituality the bedrock of Maimouna Guerresi

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If you love art, then you would already have been thrilled by Maïmouna Guerresi. A sensational artist by all accounts, Guerresi’s mind-bending works ranging from photography, sculpturing, videos and installations have long captivated the imaginations of art lovers from all around the world.

Maïmouna Guerresi
Maïmouna Guerresi

Maïmouna Guerresi’s early works were quite undoubtedly, inspired by the European Body Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, Guerresi has become an iconic symbol herself in the way she mixes a strong African-Asian blend together with classical Western iconography. Through this hybrid visual language she communicates the discomfort and beauty of cultural diversity and contemporary multiracial issues.

Her photography often depicts the mystical figures of Islamic Africa. In 1991, Guerresi travelled to various African countries and converted to Islam in Senegal. This marked her new identity and started another direction for her work. She adopted the name Guerresi, referring to the recurrent themes of multiculturalism and feminine spirituality.

Through Guerresi’s work, one gets a strong identity of the relationship between women and society and it is clearly evident that she has a strong passion and opinion on the role of women in countries where their roles are often marginalised. Without a shadow of a doubt, empowerment is a consistent theme in her work.

Recurring metaphors such as milk, light, the hijab and trees come up often and there is no artist out there quite like Guerresi out there. That’s a pure fact. Via her photographs and silent videos, veiled women comes out as strong characters with her Fatimah image characterised as Mother Earth, and reveals Guerresi’s innermost thoughts regarding the infinity values of universe.

Aquila Style is absolutely proud and humbled to be able to secure an interview with Guerresi as she takes us on a journey into her mind. Guerresi will be gracing this year’s MOCAfest, part of the 11th World Islamic Economic Forum held in Kuala Lumpur from Nov 3–5, 2015. Be sure to catch her there! In the meantime, please follow her on Facebook and jump to her website today.

Aquila Style: Inspiration is a recurring theme for all artists, and rightfully so. Who were the personalities that had the biggest impact on you when you were growing up?

There are several artistic references that had contributed to my growth and had really moulded to where I am today, especially the iconography of ancient masters. Even up until today, my heart still gets stirred by the metaphysical figures of Piero della Francesca, as well as the Madonnas veiled by Antonello da Messina. The sculptures by Bernini are always impressive, as were the spatial concepts of Lucio Fontana. The art of Islamic calligraphy in the African iconography has always been an important part of my life, and I see a lot of similarities with the mystical texts by Rumi. These guys were, and always will be, iconic figures in my heart.

Aquila Style: What do you look at when you approach art? What are the inspiring subjects for you, and what are the exciting elements that you get motivated the most from?

Progression is a big part of any artist. Currently, I am interested in everything that is spiritual and scientific which can be translated and moulded into art. Scientific and religious readings are such strong stimulus subjects and they are at the moment, the strongest propellants in giving direction to my artistic approach.

I am constantly looking through the feelings, intuition and metaphysical thought, to fill the intellectual vacuum that still exists between art, science and religion. I am always interested in deepening the different expressions of Islamic mysticism and the spiritual value of women in Islam.

With my work, I try to offer a look and a different perspective of Islamic spirituality, rejecting stereotypes and conventions. Symbols, objects, artifacts, calligraphy, signs, faces are the elements that characterize my work, with which I try to contribute to that alchemical process , poetic and miraculous that through the work of art is expressed in beauty and spiritual communion.

Aquila Style: From photography to installations to sculptures, you invest a lot of energy in various genres. Which excites you the most, if there is one?

There isn’t a genre that I like more than the other. It is the work process itself that needs to be expressed better in one way or another. For example, some works can be better expressed with the medium of video, while others need to be materialized in sculptures or represented through photography. It really depends.

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. The speech in itself is an art form.

Aquila Style: Texture is a big part of your work. Where do you source your material and how does that sense of touch and feel figure in your work?

My works – especially when photographs become the feature of the backgrounds and setting the theme and tone for the fore fronting objects and clothes – are important to me in becoming a single composition.

The act of photography is the final act, the final result coming from a long and difficult road. The cloak, worn by people and characters, is an architectural structure which covers them from preventing them from showing their shape. Only the faces, hands, and feet are visible. This emptiness becomes a metaphor of the fear of the different and of the unknown. But, the reassuring face of the characters appeases those fears. My costumes are cloaks for inside beauty.

Aquila Style: Women and spirituality are constant recurring themes in your work. What are your thoughts on women’s rights and the hijab in today’s 21st century terms?

My interpretation of the veil is symbolic and dreamy, and sometimes it moves away from specific cultural or religious references. In my works, veiled figures symbolize the sacredness of a body which to me, is considered as a sacred building and a temple of the soul.

The body reminds me of the traditional Madonna of classic art from Piero della Francesca to Antonello da Messina, but also to ordinary Muslim women. I am interested in looking for the infinitive possibilities of female spirituality and telling about the unease, fascination and value of being something different.

The veil has a very long pre-Islamic tradition. It is the distinctive showpiece regardless of rich, noble women and slaves. It is meant to protect respectable women so that they could not be harassed. It was later in Islam that the veil becomes a religious and political sign for Muslim women, although it is not an obligation but a Quranic prescription.

Culture and traditions develop though time. The role of a woman in the Muslim society has changed. In fact in recent times, a lot of women have studied at universities and have been taken up high positions in many important offices. The women’s liberation and emancipations is rightfully, growing in a still strongly male dominated society.

For me, the veil should not be a mandatory garment except in the ritual of prayer or in a Mosque. But at the same time, I find it absurd to ban it. The veil must be a personal expression and freedom of the Muslim woman, and that she has the final say if she wants to wear it or not. It is not a garment that makes the faith. In fact, even men do not carry mandatory headgear of any kind. I think that for a Muslim woman – with or without veil – is a simple and practical clothing and should be a right response to a dynamic world that we live in.

Aquila Style: You’ve participated in numerous exhibitions around the world. Which exhibition were you most excited about and where do you see Islamic art heading over the next couple of years?

There have been several exhibitions that I remember with a lot of emotion, I cite some more recently, the Biennale in Bamako that was held in Mali. The show ‘Les Rencontre de Bamako’ was where I was invited to exhibit a solo show at the Museum National of Bamako.

The Kiasma Museum, where I exhibited a sculpture and installation titled ‘Supha’ together with many large photographic works. I have very fond memories as well at the Islamic festival in Sharjia where I showed different installations, the Chobi Mela of Dakka in Bangladesh and the recently concluded exhibition in New York and Seattle with Marian Ibrahim Gallery.

Aquila Style: Which are your favourite pieces that you’ve done and why?

There are some works that I love in a special way, sculptures, like ‘Levity, Moisa, Supha’ or photos ‘Genitilla, Akbar, Student & teacher …” and the video ‘The Virgin of the Rocks, Oracle, Dhikr’. I always try to reflect on past works and move forward with new ideas and that is my way to not stop progressing or repeat myself.

Aquila Style: What has been your personal experience of art as a profession and what keeps you going? Are there any big exciting projects coming up in the horizon, and when?

My future plans are in October in London where I will participate at the African Art Faire 1:54 with the Marian Ibrahim Gallery, as well as the presentation of my book ‘Inner Constellation’ with the New York based publisher Glitterati. There is also a solo exhibition at the gallery in Rome Matèria coming up and as for next year, another solo show in the United States, Insha’Allah.

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