In her works, the Italian-Senegalese artist Maïmouna Guerresi portrays the sacred nature of humanity by merging influences from her own personal ancestry and a plurality of cultures. Particularly inspired by Islam and Sufi mysticism, Maïmouna draws from these philosophies to represent messages that are universal in nature, as they appeal to human spirituality devoid of any particular localism, through bare backgrounds, giant figures and plain robes.

With simple beauty, she delves into the realm of religion and mystique accompanied by an elegant and graceful language which she developed throughout her artistic development in the Veneto region of Italy. In her works, Maïmouna elevates the human condition to one of spiritual being, of symbolic meaning, of profound understanding.


Maïmouna, thank you for sharing your thoughts and journey as an artist with Shot Magazine. First of all, as an Italian-Senegalese artist, where feels most like home to you?

Home is where I create my works. This creative process takes form both in Senegal and Italy. Senegal is the land where I gather all my energy, it is the land that stimulates my photographic and sculpture works. These works are conceived and produced there, and sometimes I conclude them in my studio in the Veneto region in Italy. Senegal is the place of my spiritual retreat, and is a great stimulus for my creative expression. I take many of my photographs on the terrace of the family house in Dakar, playing with natural light and painting the walls that serve as a backdrop for the characters I portray. I employ the same method in my studio in Veneto when I prepare the backdrops for the photographs.


What prompted you to start a career as a photographer and artist?

My artistic career, in some ways, was born within my family in Veneto. When I was young, my parents used to hostAfrican priests, who were colleagues of my uncle, a missionary in Africa. At home, we used to look at photographs and videos taken by the clergymen, and this first approach to photography was fundamental for my artistic visual training. Later I studied at the art school and then at the academy of fine arts in Venice. After a short period of painting and graphicdesign I chose my photographic language. My first works were inserted in the artistic context of body art, where I compared my body with nature, with trees and with the mythical characters of Daphne and Apollo. In this context, in conjunction with the sculptural casts intended as "armor-chrysalis", my first black and white photographs, entitled "Mimesis" were created. Afterwards, I worked combining sculpture and photography.


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M.K, 2016, Minbar Kadija, 2018, polyptych, Lambda print 200x419 cm 


What is the relationship between art and Islam, in your creative process?

For me, Islam is knowledge and inner strength. It is a continuous source of inspiration for my art and I cannot separate my most intimate thoughts and my life from my artistic expression. Through my work I intend to interpret the different aspects related to Muslim spirituality with its many cultural facets and its syncretisms. My vision of art is to be able to express my sensibility, my emotions and my profoundly Islamic thoughts, through an artistic language that makes use of different expressive techniques, from video to sculpture to installation to photography. My desire is to propose a language where form and content are combined with ethics and compositional beauty. In the set of my works, I often insert calligraphic elements composed of symbols, names and invocations to intensify the cultural context in which the work is created. This, for instance, can be seen in the photographic polyptych "Students & Teacher". The photographic composition of several panels summarizes the concept of union in fragmentation. The characters, separated in each panel, are united by a single backdrop and a long table creating a metaphysical scene suspended in time. On the backdrop placed in three quarters of the composition I painted the Basmala calligraphy with which all the suras of the Koran open "In the name of God the clement and the merciful''. The calligraphy declares the cryptic meaning of the golden proportion and therefore of the perfect Divine balance.


The figures in your portraits are often draped with cloaks, yet hollowed out, illusory, levitating. What is the meaning of their emptiness?

For these figures I was inspired by the mystical Sufi characters I had the honor of meeting during visits to the holy places of Islam. I didn't want to represent their physiognomy but rather their spiritual greatness in a giant and spatial dimension, like so many unknown worlds and universes. An allegory of the ancestral spirits deriving from the biblical progenitor Adam, which in Arab and African mythology acquire gigantic proportions. The cloak they wear suggests that they possess tangible bodies, but that it is filled with a dark and mysterious void, a dimensionless and timeless space filled with vibrant quantum energy. This unfamiliar space is scary, but it's also mysteriously attractive.

What is the role of your femininity, and the femininity of your characters, in your works?

With my work I seek to reaffirm a universally recognizable feminine energy and decolonize the various stereotypical ideas of women in the Islamic world. Through symbols, names, video performances, photographs and artifacts, I try to shed light on the mystical Muslim female personalities, particularly African, who have contributed to the social and spiritual evolution of their country but have been forgotten by history.


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Flow, 2019, Lambda print, diptych , tot 105 x 280 cm


Some of your portraits incorporate not only spiritual, but also environmental elements such as branches, leaves, landscapes. What is the role of these symbols? How do you envision the notion of nature in your artwork?

Since my first photographic works I have been looking for an intimate dialogue with the “divine” by affirming the importance of natural elements, such as the symbolism of the tree or the branch, which become a metaphysical bridge between heaven and earth. In my photographic series, many of the characters are in dialogue with nature, and in particular with the symbology of the Touba tree. A sacred tree mentioned several times in Muslim writings and recognized as a living and regenerative entity. The holy city of Senegal bears the same name. In the photograph Yaye-Fall, (“Yaye” means “Mother” in Wolof), I create a dialogue between the feminine spiritual strength and the symbolism of the Touba tree. I portray Yaye-Fall as a gigantic figure wearing a large cloak made up of many pieces of cloth, a characteristic costume of the Sufi Muslim community of the Muride Baye Fall.

The figure coalesces with the Baobab, a common plant in Senegal. Beneath her mantle, roots emerge and penetrate the sand. This relation underlines her connection with her land, through her strong cultural and spiritual roots. In other works, such as the photographic installation Beyond the Border shown a the "Passport" exhibition at the African Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, I represent the idea of transition, cultural and spiritual belonging using autobiographical references. The installation is made up of photographic diptychs with images of double passports that become a metaphor for a double identity. This metaphor is further illustrated in the images of the diptychs, in which the same specular character offers branches to herself. An exchange where nature becomes the medium for an energy connection and the search for a new dimension and social evolution.


How does your spirituality shape your sense of self, as a woman and artist?

Spirituality but also politics, understood as ethics and social life, is part of all my artistic creation. Sufi philosophical, scientific and spiritual thought, sacred texts and poems have helped my spiritual formation as a human being and as a woman. Sufism is my dwelling, my compass for continuous spiritual growth. I think it is necessary for one's existence to make an effort to seek an inner elevation. Among my artistic research, I have discovered that many female Sufi mystic poets were protagonists of the birth and growth of Sufism. This confirms that women in Islam have had a great spiritual and social role. This research has helped me as a Muslim-Woman-Artist to overcome many stereotypes created by an arrogant Western vision of civilization.


What is womanhood, to you?

Femininity is a term that I consider a broad, intense, forgiving and merciful quality, which does not refer only to the female gender. The terms “feminine” and “masculine” are characters essentially constructed and acted out through a process of social construction. The female characters in my works are the protagonists of a rooted and regenerative spiritual nature that goes beyond all geographical and gender boundaries, for me it is a way of communicating an evolved vision of the human being.


All images courtesy of the artist and Marine Ibrahim Gallery