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MaÏmouna Gueressi

Many describe you as an African artist and your work as African, largely because of its underlying currents. Who is Patrizia Maimouna Guerresi?

In my works, I depict mystical figures from Islamic Africa, often interpreted through my own multiethnic family, so my research on the African sprituality has identified my image as an artist.

You were born in the Veneto Region in Italy and live and work in Verona and Milan, both in Italy as well as, Dakar, Senegal. Where is home to you?

I have a studio – home in Verona and Milan and also in Senegal ,where lives my husband family . Now in Dakar there are only the elderly and children because many adults, uncles of Adji (my daughter ) are in America or in Italy and I am part of this diaspora. In any case, my home is where I can work peacefully …

Could you share more generously, your background including, family and early life I was born in Italy, in Veneto, from a catholic family. I had an aunt nun and an uncle missionary in Africa, so in the house of my parents there were often guests African religious and with they we looked at pictures and movies on their missions and shared together experiences and traditions of the african Burundi people or other nations and countries. Where did you grow up, mainly?

I grown in Italy ,with the desire to go and live in Africa .
What led you into becoming an artist and where did you train? I finished my academic studies in Venice, I began to travel and attend various museums in Europe then I traveled and later lived in Muslin Africa . All these experiences have contributed significantly to my artistic training .

I have always been fascinated to shape a idea, a feeling. T Sculpture, photography and drawing were the means by which I could more easily express that my creative needs.

The creative act, is stimulating and therapeutic, allows people to access the most intimate and hidden himself, to come in contact with the emotions internalized and often unexpected and also to experience and enhance skills often ignored or unused. For me, art is also a way to express their inner growth.

In the 80s you were known for your conceptual feminist work, but from 1991 after your marriage to a member of the Senegalese Murid community and subsequent conversion to Islam, your work took on a radically different turn. Please tell us how you came to live in Senegal and the resulting influences on your work? My first works were inserted in the artistic context of the body art , I was looking for a cosmic contact with nature , my body was the main subject I compared with the plant world and with figures from classical mythology, as Daphne and Apollo.
Later, my research has expanded on other issues where the body becomes container and temple of the soul. The encounter with Islam in Senegal and my conversion has increased my art and expandied my spiritual and artistic vision.

I felt the desire to express through my art this renewed spirituality and those feelings and emotions that I tried attending the sacred places of Africa and Muslim religious figures .
From this experience came the series of photographs of “The Giants”, for which I was inspired by the great saints African Muslims, interpreting their greatness and their spiritual beauty but not their appearance, in fact in my photographs are ordinary people or members of my family that I represent as the characters unreal and metaphysical and without abandon the theme of the body, I expressed veiled and
abstract … a symbolic and mystical body, with the dark-skinned face.

And the name Maimouna?

After the to Islamic ritual of the Shahadah (testimony of faith) I took the name of Maimouna, which is also the name of a holy woman in Senegal.

This change has influenced my spiritual life, but also my artistic expression. Struggling against the preconceptions and stereotypes about Islam, I continued in this not easy path, trying to represent a concept of beauty that combines ethics, aesthetics and religion through my artistic sensibility.

What religion did you profess originally and why did you convert to Islam?

I was born into a Catholic family, very practicing, but I was a little ‘rebellious and especially curious to know more of what they taught me, and already as a young I was fascinated by Islam, the fate then wanted that to meet it in Africa.

Was it a discovery for you that Islam provided the basis from which to express your thematic concerns or did you adopt the faith being fully aware that its tenets could become the foundation of your visual expression?

For me Become a Muslim was the inner need, the next step was the awareness of wanting to communicate and represent my inner metamorphosis even in my art. I’m interested in communicating a concept of unity and to analyze and represent the points of encounter between different cultures and religions rather than the differences that exist between them.

Your practice underscores a multidisciplinary approach that includes photography, sculpture, video and installation. Which medium precedes the others in your practice, and which best expresses your convictions.

I am an eclectic artist, 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. So it’s hard for me to think of a single medium. In recent years I have worked a lot with photography, but it has remained a strong need to express the action with the video or the performance and the threedimensionality through the sculpture.

Have you always maintained this multimedia approach in your work?

Yes, from the beginning of my career I have always been interested in investigating various forms of artistic expression.

Your work is rich in symbolism and underscores your preoccupation with the physical and spiritual. How do you mediate between these two realms?

In my work I would like to represent “the universe of the inner body.” is a constant search of the absolute that combines the physical with the metaphysical, the macro with the micro cosmos . An ongoing question of what is destined to disappear or to last for eternity.

Your work also bears hints of personal experience, especially as it reflects on feminine spirituality. Could you let us into any memorable experience, which may have influenced your art?

In the course of my career I have made many works in which I have dealt with various issues, where the women’s spirituality has an important place, such as the photographic series entitled “The Sisters”, Inspired by my family experience, I describe the daily life of two sisters of nation and religion different, interpreted by my two daughters, in everyday situations, such as a metaphor for a symbolic message and a possible ecumenical dialogue between the two cultures and religions where the mother is the point of union.

A different experience instead (which inspired me the realization of some sculptures) was an encounter with a holy Senegalese named Kunta, who gave his name to all the orphans who welcomed them into her home, a way to partecipate her holiness with these unfortunate girls. So I created a large sculpture of a woman sitting on a throne, with a deep black hole in the belly and around her several crouching figures of women painted black that have her own face.

Each of your photographs involves a combination of techniques and processes, for example chalk drawings and calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic on painterly backdrops, as well as apparels and hats you personally craft. Are these processes just as significant as the finished art?

When I prepare my photo shoots, I create a staging, as a theater art. I am oftem inspired by the poses and gestures of the characters of ancient icons, represented in the works of the artists of the past, where the spiritual symbolic presence is the main theme.

Symbolic objects (or seemingly symbolic), painted walls (which are the backdrop as large paintings informal) or written prayers in Arabic, theatrical costumes and poses slightly emphatic, make this metamorphosis from the everyday to the sacred. Then the photograph determines the final process of the work.
With reference to your earlier work; Bui Bui- Virgin of Rocks (1999); Bui Circle – Veiled Women (2001); and Fathima – Bui Bui Circle (2002), you seem to present women in a particularly non-descript veil. However, in Suspended (2007); Genitilla- Al Wilada (2007); Mother- Minaret (2007); Black Oracle (2009); The Golden Door (2011); and others more recently featured in the exhibitions Cancava (2013) and Inner Constellations (2014), you relate more directly to Islam. Is it correct to say that these later works measure your progression in the exploration of Sufism? All work that you mention contain concepts such as the suspension, the expansion, the infinite. These concepts are present in Islamic mysticism and in the Sufism.

Islam considers art and beauty as a divine quality (one of God’s names is al-Jamil, “beauty”), because Allah loves beauty and for me Islam is a source of continuous inspiration and evolution. In the picture “Suspended” the figure is like a spaceship that begins to rise from the ground, while the bubbles that come out of the dark womb of the female figure “Genitilla to Wilada” are as many new worlds, lightweight and unknown.

Mother Minaret, is a veiled figure , very high, so as to confront the minaret, which I drew back, as a backdrop. Adji Baifall Minaret wearing a large colored coat , made from me along with other African women sufi assembling 99 pieces of fabric, such as the 99 names of God. These characters with dark faces are like big spirit guides, icons, ancestral, where aesthetics and ethics come together in a mystical renewal of the spirit.

How has your art evolved over time? Can you explain with copious examples of your work?

I was an artist and art work at the same time, I tried a cosmic contact with the universe becoming in my performances tree that mediates between heaven and earth. Identifying myself in Daphne (represented in Baroque statue by Bernini) that in the touch of Apollo is transformed into a laurel tree bark.

Now this concept of metamorphosis represent it in the mystical bodies of the “Giants” where forme architecture and spaces blacks are part of the body. The recent work “indian red cosmos” is part of a series of works done in india (and presented with Tasveer Foundation at the National Museum in Baharein)
Indian Red cosmos is a feminine image, top view that rotates on itself so quickly in the rotation so that his body will expand or contrane and disappears turning into so many planets in outer space. This confirms my desire for transformation and identification with the universe. There is a line of contact with the works of the past but it is clear that my current work does not belong to the first artistic movement of the Body Art.

In one of your portraits, Lamin, the subject dons a white veil, the symbol of Islamic faith. At the same time, half the face is divided by a white line representing purity, which curator Michket Krifa has suggested is evocative of “a form of pagan ritual” supporting a supposed unification of opposing religious beliefs. What are your concerns in this work and how often have your works been the subject of differing interpretations, often controversial? I am naturally inclined to think and express myself through my cultural islamic training. I like to describe those who are often the costumes and the syncretism of the Muslim world.

I like interpret spirituality and metaphor, “the body of the soul” , not religious dogma. The act of painting and mark the face of my characters with a white line down the face or use milk in my photographic and video performance , for me is like a ritual of purification and a sign that recalls the customs and traditions practiced by many peoples of Asia and Africa, .. It is my artistic blessing..

Much of the power of your work draws from mysticism. The examples include Suspended; The Giants; Supha, Giants “Ars 11”and Levitation. What inspired these works and how easy is it for you to capture images of hollow and weightless figures, who defy the laws of modern physics?

Mystery, suspensions, blanks, dark and concave elements are present in my photographic compositions. The clothes in the form of architectures metaphysical and surreal wearing my characters in the picture become a whole one with their body. In photography in sculpture I also try to represent the concept of expansion suspension or levitation, as the veiled woman suspended between two chairs in the sculpture “Levitation”.

The Supha sculpture, made of white resin, is a female figure with classic formal solutions, but with African facial features. She has her legs curled and a long hat on his head that suspend from the ceiling, while a long mantle of white cloth, tied like a belt at the waist, down to the ground.

This figure becomes mystical as it is a channel of light and energy that unites heaven and earth, And the mantle that falls from the hips down to the floor looks like it magically support.

The name is inspired by the name Safa. Supha, which in Arabic means purity, reminiscent of the purity and simplicity of the Sufis. In addition Suf “also means wool. Sufis of the early centuries were ascetics who lived in the deserts dressed in long woolen tunic, their unique properties.

This sculpture along with photographs of the Giants I have exhibited in the exhibition of contemporary African art “ARS 11” in Helsinki and will also be exposed in the museum in Minneapolis.
Another work that I presented to Stimultanea – Pole de la photographie (Strasbourg) curated by Celine Duval and all ‘ Istitute of Cultures d’Islam (Paris) exhibition curated by Michket Krifa, is called “Infinity Sound” through which I interpreted the theme of infinite depth and technique of optical vision. The work consists of two resin sculptures that represent two faces of women with open mouth and with hands covering his ears. This position is reminiscent of the Islamic call to prayer, but also the scream of Munch. These works are placed in the wall at a height of eye of the beholder.

The sculpture has a reading, interior and exterior, looking into the mouth of the hole you will have a certain disorientation, it has the effect of an infinite depth that appear to cross the wall where is placed the sculpture. The works positioned opposite one another creating “an imaginary line energy that can pierce even the walls” .
In creating these works, I tried to go over to exterior allegorical description “of the call to prayer,” but to induce the viewer to reflect on the symbolic meaning of ‘infinite and that of the world of phenomenal appearances.
What did you intend to project with The Sister series beyond the obvious connotation of the female state? As I have described previously in the photographic series “The Sisters”, inspired by my experience, I represent two sisters of different nation and religion interpreted by my two daughters, in everyday situations, such as a metaphor for a symbolic message and a possible ecumenical dialogue between the two cultures and religion where the mother is the point of unity and affirmation of women’s spirituality.

Your Munadil and Minaret series are metaphor-laden, with humans either squatting on pedestals as 3-D sculptures or carrying headgears designed like tall mosques. What really were your messages in those works?

The works entitled “Munadil” are the stylites, perched on a high pedestal which look at what’s going down, and they know what’s at the top they are holy warriors and guardians of the spirit that protect people.
The series of the “Minaret Hats “I focused on the highest part of the body exposed to “the elements of life”: the Head. I wanted to protect it and cover it with a series of artifacts in the form of Hat and Minaret , made in the traditional way and ritual, with simple materials and pieces of cloth, collected, put together and then sewn as is the tradition for the Sufi Muslim Baifall of Senegal (which they produce manually their own clothes.)

Hats minarets are tall and narrow forms of architecture that I wear to my characters that then photographed. The characters in the photographs conceal her face with a hand gesture, have blindfolded or simply close your eyes, they seem to get away from the world to get in tune with the cosmic spirit divine. The hats minarets are for me as castles, fortresses, which protect the head, the upper part of the body but they are also seen as an extension of the same body, of the antennae , of the canals leading that transmit spiritual energy (as in the traditions of the ancient Dogon people)

Please elaborate on other major series you have worked on?

In the past 15 years I have made several sculptures and installations as for example, the “ Egg men”, a series of figures concluded on themselves to spherical form , huddled and arranged to land in prayer position.

Another example is the installation “The Black Mountains” consists of a group of figures in the form of veiled women from the dark face turned upward, are joined together by a black cloak, like a mountain range, they seem destined for a ‘interminable wait, “matres dolorosae” pleading the sky, also recall the image of illegal emigration.
Another significant work is “the carpets “, composed of many terracotte in the form of prayer carpets , made with the pressure of embroidered fabrics and prints of feet of women. Arranged along the floor as the result of a great common prayer. This work was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Atlanta in 2004.

The Giants Roms are two istallation composed of two long and thin houses, created from steel tubing, In one of these is placed a long bed under which a disorderly line of aluminum slippers is placed directly on the floor . Inside the second house there is a long and narrow table on which the artist has placed the bread rolls , these too made from aluminum . The two sculpures are mystic architeture which develop beyond real space in order to arrive the metaphysical and dreamlike space of ecstatic meditation and silence. At the same time the archetype houses alludes both to islamic burials as well as to contemporary housing and to the prehistoric collective inhumations in Sadinia called “The Giants Rooms”

Your “photographs and videos of silent, austere, veiled women… enveloped in chadors, fixed within their own tradition and isolated from and by it in the contemporary world” bear strong religious undertones. Men, even though unveiled, are equally represented in such devotional carriage, making it difficult to draw a line between their functions and those of women. What are you trying to achieve in these works?

My male characters have an identity ethereal and undefined. They are part of a metaphysical world where sex is not a precise identification, Only the name and face differentiate them, while the bodies are hollow architectures that support an ideal world, and dreamlike where there are male and female characters with the same degree of spirituality.

With veiled images of women that seem to cast a prohibitive shadow on the female gender, are you suggesting that religion itself is trapped in the politics of male significance and superiority?

In many of my works I represent the image of the Muslim woman starting from the African ,(with which I identify myself spiritually) , That is a strong and powerful woman and not like that, submissive and humiliated represented by the Western media.

In the history of Islam there are many examples of female characters who are distinguished for their sanctity and also for their culture.

In a recent performance titled Akhfa “(hidden area) that I presented on the occasion of an exhibition organized by Achille Bonito Oliva and Elizabeth Mambro of the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, I developed this concept of spiritual awakening of the women, in this performance I name symbolically 99 names of saints and Sufi poets Inspired by an Iranian text that dates back to the eleventh century … that tells the forgotten lives of women sufi poets who have lived more than ten centuries ago .. mystical and holy that led to the development and growth of Sufism since its early beginnings, later then forgot With Akhfa I wanted to reflect on the condition of women in a religious world that even today so obvious and dramatic is marked by the predominance of male figures. My ritual action tends to bring down the veils that actually and metaphorically obscuring the role of women in the Islamic religion, but also in contemporary social reality, regardless of culture and of both political and geographic area.

Your approach to art and work is so unique that one wonders who your mentors are. Who have been the
influences in your career as an artist? For me most influencing art is the classic and metaphysics of Piero della Francesca, the Fontana spatialism, Arabic calligraphy and the African Art These art forms are mixed in my work as a new syncretic formal expression.

In your recent solo exhibition, M-Eating, you presented new work that reveals “through dining, the deep analysis between the individual and his society with a special look at countries in the developed world.” Please, can you tell us more about this series and your continuing body of work?

M-eating is the title that accompanies my new series of photographic works, in these images IIrepresent men, women and children in Africa, one in front of each photographed separately at the same table, seen from behind or to the side and then put together as in a banquet. On the table is not the food but a few elements; a plate, a pitcher of water or other objects, such as old remnants of war or other.

In this context, the remainder of the war has lost its original meaning threatening to assume a ‘more innocuous everyday and decorative. In most of the photos deepens the ongoing conflict between aggregation and isolation The characters have a look preoccupied or distracted that you do not encounter even though the context is that of conviviality. L ‘table encounter thus becomes an opportunity to reflect on contemporary man and his relationship with the company. The colorful clothes, tablecloths, the funds of the walls painted by me are part of this silent act, suspension metaphysics, something is going to happen for a possible dialogue or other infinite interpretations. In the installation – performance that I presented during the Biennale in Dakar I wanted to emphasize the two aspects of the ‘Africa.

The nobility of the people opposed to the difficult communication between them. The installation is composed of two tables joined together by a pile of tires that prevents the vision and communication between the two characters that are sitting opposite one anotherthe unstable arrangement of the tires and the lack of communication between people, underlines the precariousness of African life, that in spite of the progress and the continuous changes remains in its unstable equilibrium as supported by divine intervention…

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