For spiritual Italian artist, life and work are one

For spiritual Italian artist, life and work are one
Image: Huda Bashatah
Updated 17 December 2016

For spiritual Italian artist, life and work are one

For spiritual Italian artist, life and work are one

WHEN the Italian multimedia artist Maïmouna Guerresi began traveling in North Africa she was deeply affected by the people she encountered.
Guerresi’s conversations with Muslims on her travels had a profound impact on her, and in 1991 the artist — once a staunchly religious Catholic — converted to Islam.
“I learned about the community there where they talked to me without barriers and that left a great impact on my soul,” Guerresi told Arab News at this week’s opening of her exhibition at the Hafez Gallery in Jeddah.
Guerresi was born in Italy to a traditional Catholic family, but she was attracted to Islam during her travels.
The city of Touba in Senegal was a significant milestone on the artist’s religious journey.
The artist didn’t only listen to Muslims on her journey, but also did her own research about Islam’s belief system until she was convinced to take the crucial, life-changing decision to embrace it.
Prayer helped her spiritually in expressing herself through her art, but didn’t change her methods.
“Islam only changed my vision and perspective about life and things around me,” she said. “It changed my mentality, taught me to respect other religions and touched me on a spiritual level.”
Guerresi found harmony and balance in religion and art. “It is impossible for me to separate my life and work,” she said.

The veil in art
Guerresi’s work focuses on the spirituality of human beings and their relationship with their inner mystical dimension. She works primarily with photography, sculpture, video and installations.
Saudi artist Yusuf A. Ibraheem said Guerresi’s exhibition is a beautiful addition that brings a new tone to music that was once monotonous.
“Once we cross-pollinate ideas from different cultures, especially in art, we reach a beautiful point of harmony,” he said.
The Islamic elements in Guerresi’s work were not at first received universally well in Europe, with some taking issue with the depictions of veiled women in many of her photographs.
“People were asking me ‘why?’ every time they see me or my work, especially after I declared my conversion to Islam,” the artist said.
It is important for Guerresi to convey to people that Islamic art is beautiful, harmonious and spiritual. It is certainly not superficial, as everything is connected at a deep level.
Guerresi is disturbed about the distorted image some Islamic extremists portray to the world. This is not true Islam, she said; Islam empowers people mentally and spiritually. “Islam is freedom not prison,” she added.

Exhibition in Saudi Arabia
The feminine element is a continuing theme in Guerresi’s first solo exhibition in Saudi Arabia, as she wants to emphasize women’s empowerment to the young generation.
Tolerance is another message Guerresi intends to convey, given her belief that people from various cultures, faiths and religious backgrounds must coexist.
Manuela De Leonardis, the curator of the exhibition in Jeddah, has been working with Guerresi since 2009 when the two women met at a photography festival in Italy. De Leonardis invited Guerresi to be part of a book project on how art brings people together despite different cultures and languages. Guerresi liked the idea, which led to many more projects with De Leonardis throughout the years.
Guerresi’s work presents an intimate perspective on the spirituality of humans; her images are delicate narratives with fluid sequencing, with an appreciation of shared humanity beyond borders — be they psychological, cultural, religious or political.
Her work has been extensively exhibited in solo and group shows all over Europe, the United States and Asia. Guerresi has participated in the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale on several occasions, and displayed her works across the Middle East and North Africa, in places such as Morocco, Dubai, Sharjah, Bahrain, and now, Jeddah.
“I know that the type of art I’m bringing to (the) Saudi audience is somehow different to them — as they are not used to see women in canvases, which is my way to express myself, but there is a message that want to convey about Islam through my art,” she said.
“I would love to hold another exhibition in different Saudi cities in the future if I had the chance,” the artist added.

Elegant art
Qaswra H. Hafez, owner of Hafez Gallery, said that the idea of hosting Guerresi as the first Italian artist to exhibit in his gallery came from Italian Consul General Elisabetta Martini’s mother, who visited his house last year and had been impressed by Jeddah’s art scene.
“She expressed her will to link the Saudi-Italian roots in terms of art, so she nominated Mrs. Guerresi’s works,” Hafez said.
Saudi artists who attended the exhibition were intrigued by her work.
Mohammed Haider, who had served as chairman of the Saudi House of Artists in Jeddah and is a member in the Arab Society for Arts and Culture, said that Guerresi’s art is elegant.
Haider referenced the artist’s use of salt — a precious commodity since ancient times, and symbol of wisdom, knowledge, incorruptibility and light — as a metaphor in her works.
“What really caught my attention in her work, is the presence of salt and women. She defiantly has a message to convey through these two elements,” Haider said.
Saudi artist Amena Al-Haddad pointed out that Guerresi’s work represents women’s struggles in life and their journey of empowerment. “Islamic spirituality has a big presence in her work,” she added.

— Maïmouna Guerresi’s “Journey of the Sparrowhawk” is on
until Jan. 25 at the Hafez Gallery in Jeddah.