Suleika Mueller Portraits of women whose creativity merges with their faith

A photograph of Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, her silhouette visible through a sheer red veil as she dances.
WordsMegan Wallace

Contemplating Suleika Mueller’s vibrant photographic work is as if being pulled into a heightened, ethereal realm—somewhere not quite of this world, where both colors and feelings seem more vivid than the day-to-day. In her new selection of zines, “RAYS,” the London-based artist externalizes the vibrant inner world of three women: each of whom use their creative practice as an extension or expression of their religious faith. She tells Megan Wallace about how her subjects’ experiences mirror her own journey with art and spirituality.

Born in Basel, Suleika Mueller was raised in a Sudanese, Sufi Islamic order—splitting her time between her Swiss school days and travelling across Sudan, Egypt, the UAE and Europe in order to spend time within the order. Coming to London in 2014, Mueller supported herself as a graphic designer and art director while, on the side, teaching herself photography. 

Her latest project “RAYS” is a trio of zines unspooling the interiority of three female artists who use their work as an extension of their spiritual practice. For Mueller, the series comes out of a need to address historic imbalances which have seen various forms of organized religion dominated by men, with many faiths barring women from holding positions as spiritual leaders or teachers. It’s a cause Mueller cares about deeply, due to her own upbringing in a context where her spiritual expression was highly restricted. “Women weren't allowed to practise in my order,” Mueller recalls. “That aspect of my life was really painful. I had the feeling that I wasn’t as capable as men, or as deserving.”

A photograph of architect Nevine Nasser sitting in meditation behind a decorative window with Islamic geometric motifs, at the Sufi centre she designed for her order.
A photograph of architect Nevine Nasser, taken from behind as she stands in prayer at the Sufi centre.
Nevine Nasser

As a young child the artist still managed to cultivate a rich inner life—it was through interactions with art, experiences which deeply moved her, that she was able to glimpse the sublime. “As I think is the case in many other Sufi groups, my order used art, in our case music and dance, as a way to reach transcendental states,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to do that, but as a child I had quite profound experiences through music, visual arts or even the beauty of nature.” It was this which ultimately pushed Mueller towards her current career—choosing to find fulfilment in creativity while the dimensions of her spiritual life remained limited.

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A close-up photograph of Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, with golden rays of sunlight illuminating her face, revealing tears of reverence as she remembers the Hindu deity Shiva.
Rukmini Vijayakumar

The first of the three zines was born from a chance encounter with the work of Nevine Nasser, an architect who designed the School of Sufi Teaching, a Sufi community center in London’s Bethnal Green. After visiting the center and becoming enthused by its calming atmosphere and use of sacred geometry, Mueller was overjoyed to learn that it had been designed by a woman, and felt compelled to reach out to Nasser to ask if she could photograph her. 

The resulting images are a portrait of Nasser’s craft just as much as they are of her likeness. Mueller captures her subject’s meticulous design in service of the divine: the camera lingering in moments where light weaves through the space’s intricate latticework. While Mueller’s gaze revels in cool, light blue tones and the clean lines of the building, there’s an ease and directness with which she surveys her subject. “I was truly inspired by her as a person and by her practice. The whole project felt like healing from the past in different ways.” Connecting with a female creative and Sufi Muslim like Nasser was an important restorative moment for Mueller—witnessing Nasser’s empowered, dynamic design and the way it serves her faith provided a role model which was missing in Mueller’s youth.

A photograph of Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, dancing with full concentration in nature.
A photograph of Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, her face softly lit by the setting sun, her right hand forming a mudra above her head, and her eyes closed in deep absorption.
A photograph of Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, sitting in the grass in an open field, meditating in stillness on the Hindu deity Shiva.
Rukmini Vijayakumar

The second zine features photos of dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar, taken on the outskirts of London’s Epping Forest. The highly emotive nature of Vijayakumar’s interpretation of Bharatanatyam—a classical dance form which originated from Hindu temples in southern India—was Mueller’s lasting impression of the shoot. “There was a sequence where she was channelling her longing for the god Shiva and, as she was dancing, she started to cry,” the image-maker recalls. “It was this eruption of emotion that really moved me. You can see the tear on her cheek from that moment in two of the images; it’s a glimpse into what she’s feeling.”

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“The whole project felt like healing from the past in different ways.”
A photograph of ceramicist Sassirika Lam, shot in front of a waterfall mural of her Buddhist temple, smelling a pink protea flower.
Sassirika Lam

The final set of images is slower, and more gently paced, featuring the Buddhist ceramicist Sassirika Lam imaged in deep blue and green tones within the London Buddhist Centre. “Ceramics is a form of mindfulness for Sassirka, and it’s also a space for her to embrace imperfection, especially in her more decorative objects, as [with clay] you never know how things will come out,” Mueller says.

A photograph of ceramicist Sassirika Lam leaning on a table displaying some of her ceramic works.
Sassirika Lam

There’s a serenity and a peace here, in the images of Lam that mirrors Mueller’s own photographic process. Shooting on film, Mueller gravitates towards analog for its spontaneity and the raw emotion which it can capture. But she also notes that the unique qualities of film are drawn out through a slow development process. “One of the main aspects of me working with film is going to the dark room, which means I get to spend a lot more time with the images, contemplating them,” she explains. “That in itself feels like a kind of meditative practice.”

But while Mueller’s creative practice is personally beneficial, she never loses sight of her wider purpose as an image-maker. Throughout “RAYS” is a motivation to empower others and provide the representation which was missing in the artist’s youth. “I always strive to create images that are meaningful or can help inspire people,” she explains. “I hope to have a good, positive effect on younger generations—I would have really benefited from ‘RAYS’ when I was growing up.”