ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Shireen Taweel as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Shireen Taweel is a Sydney based artist working on Gadigal Land. Shireen’s practice draws on her Australian Lebanese heritage and employs a progressive application of copper artisan techniques to inform cross-cultural discourse around the construction of cultural heritage, knowledge, identity, and language. The project development of Shireen’s works are often site-specific, weaving local narratives and research with a focus on experimentation in material and sound through site.
Shireen’s constant acquisition of traditional coppersmith artisan skills is a research vessel for community focused conceptual development. Through a progressive application of the collected artisan techniques and a manipulation of the acts of making her works lead to possibilities of cross-cultural discourse, opening dialogues of shared histories and fluid community identities.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Shireen Taweel: My practice is contained by the use of highly ornate sculptural forms and sensorially immersive installations, in order to locate the audience in an abstracted presentation of a specific place. My concepts highlight invisible histories that have been buried beneath the weight of social political power structures. Engaging language, fluid architectural spaces, Islamic science, and ritual, I strive to bring unseen past cultural practices into contemporary conversations.
Concepts for the works are heavily research based, and more often than not, informed by recent or past personal experiences relative to migration, diaspora and pluralism. I employ different mediums dependent upon what’s being highlighted within the content I am presenting through the work. Light, scent and sound are used to evoke sensorial experiences, and text where I have been more language focused. Central to the works are copper artisan techniques I employ for highly decorative pierced and engraved processes in my sculptural objects which are the centre piece of each work, many of the works to date have had an architectural element.
AE: Can you discuss copper as a recurring material in your work? How did you begin working with copper and how has the material, and your mastery over it, evolved through your practice?
ST: Copper is the metal which invited my curiosity to the practice of sculpture as a discipline in my first year of university. It opened an artistic cultural dialogue with my heritage. Through my research I’ve found that the metal offers rich explorations of my cultural heritage and has led me to a more concise exploration of major Islamic art collections, the history of the metal and the artisan. There has also been experience gained from actively engaging in everyday rituals of making. For example, participating as an understudy in various artisan workshops has granted me practical skills that inform how I marry process and the legacy of cultural practices from an Islamic arts foundation into my own vision for a piece of work. I really enjoy the malleability of the metal; due to its sensitive nature it allows for the creation of more delicate nuanced pieces. There is a sense of self-restraint and intuition I feel in working with copper, like communicating in soft tones and slower tempos rather than bigger, louder and more upbeat conversations.
AE: Can you tell us about your installation Shoe Bathers and the range of formal, material and conceptual connections you make in your work?
ST: Shoe Bathers draws upon the performative ritualism of bathing. The installation is informed by my personal family experiences of bathing at the Hammam Al Nouri in Tripoli Lebanon, although the hammam is now in ruin. The exhibition also extends to encompass the more personal act of bathing, such as the hours spent in my auntie’s bathroom. The scent of olive oil soap permeates through the installation, not unlike the way it perfumed the heavy mist of condensation in her bathroom, a fragrant recipe and tribute to the centuries of Tripoli’s soap makers. Each hand-crafted bar of soap in the exhibition has been formed by 12 months of ritualistic collaboration with the body. An action that situates the body within the room, insinuating that a bodily form sits elegantly upon each crate. The transformation of a bar of soap points to how rituals adapt when shifting from a place of conception and personal belonging. The two pairs of bathing shoes reference the spiritual symbolism of the hammam and bathing as a higher spiritual act, through an ornate elevation of the shoe from the mundane to a bather’s ritualistic regalia, cleanliness is transcending and reaches a position of sacredness within cultural practice. The sound composition is a collage of conversations I had with my auntie during many bathing rituals which sit within intimate ambient tones that conjure the stone architecture of the hammam, and further enhance the impression of the installation as a ritualized space. The sound dissipates over time as soap disappears through the ongoing cleansing of a body, a metaphor of time reshaping rituals. Low lighting gently illuminates the work and casts soft shadows reflecting upon the interior of the stone hammam, where daylight filters through an ornate glass dome and spills into enchanting recesses filled golden candlelight.
AE: Can you elaborate on the ways in which you navigate the body and the senses through objects and architecture in your works?
ST: The personal, spiritual and cultural connections experienced through associations with a prominent architectural form or set of forms within a specific geological location has been the context for many of my works. At some of the locations, the original architecture still stands although the function has changed, or it may be in ruin. At others, it’s as much about the community’s connection to the environment in which the architectural space had at one point in time existed. Through the scale and use of different media in the installations my aim has been to fully immerse the viewer in an accumulative ambience of experiences that have been uncovered through the research for the artwork. Body and sensory experiences are conveyed through sound and smell and architectural dimensions through the play of space, light and scale.
AE: Can you tell me about some of your new research around Astronomy in West Asia and the evolution of that science through tools? What are some of the ways that you plan to incorporate this research in your work?
ST: I am currently researching celestial navigation. I acquired an interest in the histories of celestial navigation from earlier research in Islamic science. Culturally I have been looking at the West Asian developments and am beginning to open a feminist discourse around women’s roles in the design of instruments and their scientific breakthroughs in celestial navigation. I aim to further my research and progress from an historical look at celestial navigation to a more speculative investigation into the possible social and political dynamics which will change the future of space migration. For example, who will go and how will we navigate the distant regions of space opposed to our earth-bound orientation, both as a species and individually.
AE: Where do you see your practice in relation to the discourse of craft within contemporary art?
ST: The copper artisan skills and techniques I’ve gained from intensive studio residencies throughout the MENA region are an essential part of my practice. I have been using the techniques to articulate cultural relationships to and through the medium. It helps when working in a multimedia practice that covers a diverse range of concepts. The concepts are often located across a broad cultural spectrum of the global and the personal. As the use of copper and its materiality has many histories, the artisan techniques I have acquired allow me to explore forms and installation designs which honor my connection to the cultural heritage of the craft and medium. Still, the work speaks from a broader frame of reference.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
ST: The major influences of my work are architecture and cultural practice. Being part of the Lebanese diaspora, I am interested in significant sacred architecture, such as the mosque, which is symbolically a strong cultural reference for the Lebanese Muslim community. I am interested in how this architecture will be designed in the future for the diaspora communities. How it adapts in design and symbolism in different environmental locations and generations of communities, who either by choice or necessity will be moving around more frequently both in the material and digital futures. I see the artisan-based skills of copper smithing in the same way. I am taking these forward with me in my art practice, taking them out of the context of the souks and design of household domestic objects and presenting them in a new environment.
AE: What are you currently working on, and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
ST: I am currently on residency at the Sydney Observatory, where I’m conducting research for a future show around celestial navigation. Following the Observatory residency, I will be undertaking a residency at the Vermont Studio Centre, in the USA this October, in their printmaking studios. Printmaking is something I have not had the opportunity to explore for a few years and I would like to see it feature more regularly in my creative practice. I have been working with copper artisan engraving techniques on my sculptural works and will explore the technique in the printmaking studio during my upcoming residency.
SHIREEN TAWIL ONLINE: