THE LIMINAL BODY: ASSEMBLAGE AND IDENTITY IN MAÏMOUNA’S FEMALE ICONS

by Michelle Apotsos*

The medium of the constructed body—the heart of Patrizia Guerresi Maïmouna’s creative practice—functions as a site for both contested and contesting identities. Assembled from diverse religious, cultural, and ethnic iconographies, the female bodies in Maïmouna’s work blur boundaries and create slippages between historically fixed binaries such as Africa and the West, Islam and Christianity, and black and white.They reflect the thrust of contemporary global culture toward a template for modern identity increasingly informed by a melding of diverse social, cultural, and political paradigms via the implements of modern technology. In her work, Maïmouna—a native European who has ‘Africanized’ herself through baptism, religious conversion, marriage, and maternity—disrupts traditional racial and geographical categorizations of the body. The concept of identity, traditionally defined, has arguably become obsolete and is in need of a certain retooling to accommodate new divergent global parameters. How, then, do we create a discursive framework for the investigation of contemporary identity that effectively accounts for its current conceptual fluidity? The danger lies in the possibility that bodies could be set adrift within a vast global sea, unanchored to any dominant point of origin and perpetually subject to the ambiguity, tension, and contradictions of modernity.[1] In response, this essay proposes an alternative investigative approach to the contemporary body—one that posits fabrication as a new type of authenticity, hybridity as a point of origin, and assemblage as a natural state of being. Maïmouna’s work illustrates the value of this approach, recognizing the medium of the body as a physical, social, cultural, and spiritual construct that has habitually been employed as a template for identity and now functions as a medium for its renovation. The surfaces of Maïmouna’s bodies reflect a métissage of conceptual systems that both collaborate with and contest one another within a single individual, offering a blueprint for the body as a fluid construct within contemporary global reality.[2]

Adji Baifall, Minaret, 2004, Lambda print on shaped aluminum

Adji Baifall, Minaret, 2004, Lambda print on shaped aluminum

The body, both as object and idea, has provided perhaps the longest-standing framework through which humankind has attempted to plot perceived cultural conditions of various populations over time. The notion of the non-Western Other, in particular, was the surface onto which Western imperialist agendas were often inscribed in order to construct digestible, thoroughly pathologized foreign bodies for European consumption. At the height of the European colonial project, the African female body was the focus of intense Darwinian scrutiny, as figures like Saartje Baartman (also known as the Hottentot Venus) became signposts for the exaggerated sexual characteristics Europeans typically ascribed to Africans. The African female body was conceived, as curator Barbara Thompson writes, as a “counterpoint to Western ideologies of white female beauty, womanhood, morality, and civilization.”[3] Under the Western gaze, the African female body became a perverse and unsanitary object, representative of all that was primitive, savage, gratuitously sexual, and unceremoniously ‘other,’ effectively positioning the African feminine as a trope for the exotic unknown. Such interpretations often directly collided with conventional African conceptions of the female body as a symbol of fertility and nurturance as well as a powerful vessel of community and continuity.[4] Over time, these opposing discourses imbued the African female body with competing narratives. This immanent dialectic persists in contemporary representations of the black female body, exemplified by Lyle Ashton Harris’s and Renee Cox’s Hottentot Venus 2000, and speaks to its still-shifting visual, conceptual, and cultural manifestations.

Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Cox, Hottentot Venus 2000, 1995

Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Cox, Hottentot Venus 2000, 1995

Yet, the instability in these more contemporary visualizations is arguably the result of a new desire to ‘liberate’ the African female body from its past—a challenge ironically enhanced by the fact that these bodies can no longer be so neatly defined, constructed, and controlled by an essentialist gaze. As they have become increasingly hybridized, multinational, transcultural, transgendered, and multiracial, the categorical determinations of previously marginalized bodies like the African female have become lethargic and non-functional.

Fathima, 2000, Lambda print

Fathima, 2000, Lambda print

In her work, Maïmouna attempts to stabilize this increasingly fragmented body through the mobilization of a series of African female icons, whose basic components have been culled from a vast pool of religious, cultural, and ethnic forms and assembled as a “new, transcultural expression” intended to present a “hybrid reality, consisting of Eastern and Western cultural references.”[5] By integrating the Euro-Christian visual tradition and Afro-Islamic female forms, Maïmouna creates a community of hyper-spiritualized matriarchs whose layered iconography attempts to transcend the sum of its parts towards the realization of a new collective spiritual reality.[6] However, Maïmouna also generates (intentionally or not) a degree of instability by collapsing these traditions within the space of a body already encumbered by conflicting social, political, and cultural connotations, challenging the body’s ability to maintain its conceptual clarity within the context of her work.

Maïmouna’s series of lambda prints, completed over the course of seven years, depicts towering female icons whose bodies accommodate hollows, voids, and grottoes—the womb-like spaces connoting refuge and nurturance. Although men are included in the series, the evocative niches identify the figures as sexually female. These spaces, in turn, transform the figures into a series of anthropomorphic sanctuaries waiting for a congregation to quicken them with the spirit of faith. Some of these voids appear to have borne spiritual fruit; however, most remain hollow, perhaps indicating that their primary purpose remains unfulfilled. In recalling the antiquated view that a woman’s utility lies in her womb, these figures complicate Maïmouna’s proposed transcultural expression and universal spiritualism.

Binah, 2004, Lambda print

Binah, 2004, Lambda print

Gold Door, 2012, Lambda print

Gold Door, 2012, Lambda print

Kalindi’s Dream, 2011, Lambda print

Kalindi’s Dream, 2011, Lambda print

In a subsequent sculpture series, Maïmouna integrates overtly Christian and Islamic paradigms with indigenous African spirituality. The tension generated by this iconographic interaction is embodied in the female forms, which either erupt screaming, thrashing, and fragmented from the walls or stand passively as veiled, ghostly, anonymous figures fixed in space and perhaps tradition. Do these women struggle against the smothering veils? Or have their bodies incorporated rigid religious doctrine to the point of total confinement? Cloistered in private, empty, two- and three-dimensional spaces, the figures meet like ships passing in the night, subtly gesturing to one another, suggesting a desire for connection.

Fathimas, 2002, resin

Fathimas, 2002, resin

Predicazione, 2005, Lambda print

Predicazione, 2005, Lambda print

Maïmouna’s figures are heavily informed by her own identity. Born Italian and Christian, Maïmouna married a Senegalese national and converted to Mouridism, a Senegalese Islamic movement based on the teachings of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba.[7] Maïmouna was adopted into her husband’s community through ceremonial baptism and given the name of her new mother, Maïmouna, which means “the woman who brings good luck.”[8] Maïmouna has two daughters, one from this union and one from a previous marriage. Their fathers are of different nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and cultures. In Maïmouna’s work, images of her daughters Marlene, who is of European Christian descent, and Adji, who is of African Islamic descent, act as “a metaphor of two worlds that are different but spiritually similar, which create dialogue in an improbable yet real family union.”[9] Through her daughters, whom Maïmouna conceives as “representations or extensions of [her own] spirit,”[10] Maïmouna has arguably achieved the very transcultural expression that she seeks in grafting foreign elements that do not ‘belong’ to her onto her own cultural template. The notion of alterity is important here, as it encompasses questions of origin, belonging, and the right to claim membership. Much cultural gate-keeping stems from early anthropological theories on cultural authenticity that linked geographical location and cultural identity. This “fetishism of boundaries,”[11] as Philip Feifan Xie describes, was not only about physically demarcated space but “ways of producing rights to seeing.”[12] By trespassing into cultural and ethnic territories where she does not belong and appropriating iconographies befitting her particular vision, Maïmouna could be considered a type of cultural tourist, using a touristic gaze to create a mélange of visual and ideological simulations to which she has assigned a particular conceptual and aesthetic capital.[13]

Maïmouna’s Family, 2006, Lambda print

Maïmouna’s Family, 2006, Lambda print

Problematic as Maïmouna’s work may be, it is at the intersection of various religious, cultural, and political frontiers present in her work that a dialogue concerning the fabrication, assemblage, and hybridity of identity must begin. The current global circulation of physical, conceptual, and aesthetic bodies via the networks of tourism and digitized visual and textual media promotes an increasingly open system of cultural definition. One can manipulate the contours of their identity, and in some cases create a new identity altogether, by accessing a variety of experiences and ideologies through technological advances in travel and communication. The processes of cultural transformation are increasingly surpassing geographically based concepts of community and nationhood, and redefining cultural ‘membership’ along new paths of mobility and contact.[14] These avenues connect peripheral, diasporic, and mixed populations to an imagined center. In place of essentialized categories of culture, ethnicity, and race, they redraw territorial lines of membership and community that can be “negotiated, emerged, hybridized, and syncretized,” shaped from within as well as from without.[15]

While Maïmouna’s iconographic elements occasionally seem trite, their visual and conceptual fluency across numerous social, political, and cultural borders lends them a type of authenticity bred from accessibility.[16] The legibility of Maïmouna’s constructed females bodies, however, positions them in a perpetually interstitial zone. An “erosion of boundaries” that previously served as identity markers such as race, ethnicity, and religion has caused new hybridized cultural geographies to take shape, in which “identities are forged through […] mobility across space, rather than within a bounded space.”[17] This liminal space, or third space, as Homi Bhabha puts it, lies “in between the designations of identity [and] prevents identities at either end from settling into primordial polarities,”[18] thus ensuring the continuous development of meaningful spaces of identity over time. In such space, identity is inherently hybrid, a product of the continuous interaction and collaboration of various cultural paradigms.

The notion of geographically bounded and culturally autonomous space has eroded the recognition that neither people nor places created in isolation has become commonplace. Complex assemblages of political, social, economic, and cultural flows give rise to new spaces, themselves fundamentally unfixed and dynamic.[19] Through these processes, both places and people become liminal entities engaged in ongoing economic, social, political, and mnemonic transactions towards the constant cultural production of units and subunits of identity. Through the constant circulation and interaction of iconographic forms, any dualisms in Maïmouna’s constructed bodies, Francesca Alfano Miglietti observes, “are slowly resolved through their re-absorption into a unity, as though a tangible yet immaterial, internal and external, spiritual and symbolic union of opposites were possible, and in this way a single configuration comes about.”[20] The intentionally paradoxical significations embodied by Maïmouna’s forms illustrate the contemporary global reality, in which people, places, and paradigms have become fundamentally unfixed. As Maïmouna plots a conception of identity defined by spiritual universalism[21] onto the marginalized, objectified, and appropriated African female body, the body becomes a productive surface on which to lay out, “the cultures of the world, permeating and becoming entangled with each other.”[22] Maïmouna’s bodies function as a series of ‘border zones’ or contact sites—embodied landscapes of contemporary identity, continuously renovated and reassembled into meaningful space.[23]

*Michelle Apotsos is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Art and Art History Department at Stanford University.

Funding for this project was generously provided by the Mary Anne Bours Nimmo Graduate Fellowship Fund at Stanford University.


[1] Claudio Minca and Tim Oakes, eds. Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006) 17.

[2] In his relatively recent work “Portuguese” Style and Luso-African Identity: Pre-colonial Senegambia, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002), Peter Mark addresses French anthropological theories that use the term métissage to describe the generation of cultural identities that are the result of processes of interaction, negotiation, and assimilation among various societies. Yet, the problem with these theories, he notes, is that they do not pinpoint the details of the process of cultural merging and thus “can connote many different processes” (Mark 82). In the context of this discussion, however, métissage provides a productive means of understanding Maïmouna’s work in that the term allows for complex, unmapped layers of interaction to develop within her work that are not necessarily qualified by process. Indeed, these narratives are activated via the subjective experience of the viewer as they parse the physical and conceptual landscape of Maïmouna’s constructed bodies.

[3] Barbara Thompson, ed. Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body (Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2008) 27.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Patrizia Guerresi Maïmouna, Artist Statement, December 2011.

http://www.artnet.com/galleries/exhibitions.asp?gid=425114098&cid=250619

[6] As described by the artist to the author, February 2011.

[7] Mouridism is a pacifistic Islamic Sufi movement founded by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, who emphasized spiritual growth and development through industry in conjunction with prayer, meditation, and Qur’anic study.

[8] Maria Grazia Torri, “Maïmouna, Art’s Shaman,” in Maïmouna P. Guerresi and Giampaolo Prearo, Patrizia Guerresi Maïmouna: The Mystic Body (Milano: Prearo editore, 2006) 36.

[9] As described by the artist to the author.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Philip Feifan Xie, Authenticating Ethnic Tourism (Bristol, UK and Buffalo, N.Y.: Channel View Publications, 2011) 32.

[12] Kamari M. Clarke, Mapping Yorùbá Networks: Power and Agency in the Making of Transnational Communities (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) 19.

[13] Xie 50.

[14] Clarke 2.

[15] Xie 20.

[16] Ellen Badone and Sharon Roseman, eds., Intersecting Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004) 8.

[17] Minca and Oakes 16.

[18] Bhabha (2004), in Xie 31.

[19] Minca and Oakes 63.

[20] Francesca Alfano Miglietti, “The Mystic Body,” in Maïmouna P. Guerresi and Giampaolo Prearo, Patrizia Guerresi Maïmouna: The Mystic Body (Milano: Prearo editore, 2006) 13.

[21] By spiritual universalism, I am referring to Maïmouna’s practice of positioning a number of different, sometimes contrary, religious traditions within a collective ideological narrative within her forms.

[22] Shinji Yamashita, Bali and Beyond: Explorations in the Anthropology of Tourism (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003) 20.

[23] Minca and Oakes 17–8.