Wonder Women: St. Louis’ Projects+Gallery to Show the Photography of Italian Artist Maïmouna Guerresi

 In Culture, Interviews

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cries a startled Alice when her body sprouts up “like the largest telescope that ever was.” If Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic explored the peril—and whimsy—of corporeal transformation, then artist Maïmouna Guerresi grants it spiritual scope.

Guerresi has long mined the realities and mystic prowess of Muslim womanhood, upending stereotypes of passive femininity and repressed selfhood that so frequently plague its image. In her latest series, “Aisha in Wonderland,” the artist allegorically follows “Aisha,” a veiled Senegalese woman played by an assortment of female family and friends, through a chimerical dreamscape referencing Islamic art, architecture and spirituality. In each wondrous environment, Guerresi’s Aishas metamorphose in scale and proportion, shrinking under sunlit windows or towering over a carpet of ivy. Often, these women gaze directly at the camera—regal, pensive, while wholly serene.

Organized by projects+gallery in collaboration with Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, “Aisha in Wonderland” will be the first significant Midwestern show for Guerresi—who has previously shown at the Venice Biennale, documenta, and the Turin Olympics, among a host of other venerable international exhibitions. Running from June 29 to July 28 this summer, the show offers a rare opportunity to reflect on the intersections of identity, dress and faith that transcend both religious and gender divides.

We spoke with projects+gallery Senior Director Bridget Melloy for more on the artist and the show.

What makes you excited about featuring Guerresi at projects+?
Her work has not been shown much in the United States—she’s been primarily shown in Europe and Northern Africa. I think this will be really interesting for the St. Louis community to see her work. Her work is really centered on ideas of duality—she was born and raised Catholic and converted to Islam when she was 40. She has all these influences of Europe and Africa, Catholicism and Islam, a melding of spiritualities that really interests me and should provoke some rich conversations. For example, a lot of her female figures are clearly wearing hijabs, but others are wearing veils that seem to reference holy figures in both the Muslim tradition and the iconography of the Catholic Madonna.

Many of the feats of scale and height for the figures in these images seem to stem from the model’s veil or garment itself. Do you know how Guerresi was able to accomplish this effect?
While I don’t know the technical aspects of how she’s created that illusion, Guerresi’s created these elongated garments to distort scale. The idea is that these garments take on an architectural element, becoming a temple for the soul and for female spirituality.

So the garments become a part of sacred architecture?
Exactly. In some of her earlier work, we can even see the openings of the veil take on the shape of an entry way to Islamic architecture, mimicking doorways—as an entry into both the temple and into the female soul. In “Aisha in Wonderland,” the costumes are very elaborate and ethereal, but at the same time, they have this very minimalist look. The sculptural element of the hijab and the veil are meant to be seen as containers for the soul or for the spirit.

This is the third show at projects+gallery this year that is female-focused. Why is this important to you?
The gallery has been around for about three years, and one thing we’ve been trying to respond to as we evolve is the underrepresentation of certain communities of artists—especially female artists and artists of color. I think that this goal ties into the fact that we are a female-run company as well.

What do you hope visitors across cultures and faith take away from “Aisha in Wonderland?”
There’s certainly something specific about Guerresi being a Muslim artist—the way she represents the female body in this body of work is clearly a Muslim representation. But her focus is really on female spirituality, which is a universal ideal no matter what faith background you come from. So even people who are not very familiar with Islamic faith can still find an entry point through this lens. At the same time, knowing that the St. Louis community hasn’t been exposed to many contemporary Muslim artists, the show relates to one of the goals of projects+—to bring artists to St. Louis that the city might not normally experience, to work with artists who are pushing boundaries, who are exploring different genres and bringing these conversations to the forefront.

“Aisha in Wonderland” will open on June 29, 2018, with an opening reception from 5-8 p.m. at projects+gallery, and will run until July 28, 2018.

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