Mystical Portraits, From Africa to Italy

A portrait from Guerresi’s Spirit Guides series. Photo: Maïmouna Guerresi

It’s hard to believe that Italian photographer Maïmouna Guerresi doesn’t use Photoshop for her dreamlike, spirituality-infused portraits — many of her subjects levitate and have superhuman limbs. Guerresi was raised Catholic in Italy, but converted to Islam after a trip to Senegal in 1991. Over the next 15 years, she began taking photos rich with symbolism from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rather than one religion in particular, it’s Guerresi’s reverence of the human body that unifies her portraits, which were published in her first book of photography just this week.

Guerresi meticulously directs each element of her photos, starting with the sets. After scouting a location (shoots have taken place in Italy, Africa, and India), she finds a wall, paints it, and accents it with writing and iconography from the Quran. Then, she places her subjects, who are mostly family and friends, atop contraptions like iron structures and mini sets of stairs. “The idea is suspension,” she told the Cut from her home in Northern Italy. Bodies should hope to one day float in the air, her translator explained, which is why another series of her photos has her subjects in sky-reaching hats in the form of minarets.

Guerresi handmade those hats, plus all of the other costumes, from fabric bought on travels to places like Mali and New Delhi. One dress, made with the help of local Sufi women, is composed of 99 patches — matching the number of names for God in the Quran. Other elements have deeper meaning, too, like white paint on skin to reference milk, a symbol for sacrifice and purification from Asian and African culture. Hands are also of particular importance to Guerresi — she considers the body a constellation, and the hands a separate entity, which is why they, along with faces, are the only parts of the body exposed in her photos.

Click through the slideshow for a look inside Inner Constellations, her book of portraits out this week.

Mystical Portraits, From Africa to Italy