The practice of Shireen Taweel could be described as one of hybridity. Working as a coppersmith from the ex-office environs of Parramatta Artist Studios has necessitated an experimental approach to her practice. In doing so, Taweel also draws upon both her Islamic, Lebanese heritage and her location in Western Sydney. This has resulted in exquisite works which, while static, provoke a sensation of transcendence.
Taweel’s recent work has drawn on the decorative elements which are part of the design and construction of new mosques in Western Sydney that serve a growing Islamic population. Research into the grave sites of early Muslim settlers in Australia, many of whom were cameleers in central Australia, led her to one of the oldest mosques in Australia, in Broken Hill. Both of these constructions have involved the use of Australian vernacular architecture, whether it be tin in Broken Hill or modern Australian design elements in Punchbowl. Taweel highlights that this illuminates the long history of Muslim presence in Australia.
“I think that's really cool how the first mosques had this concept, and yet these mosques being built today also carry these concepts. It's about being here and working with your environment and that real strong sense of cultural exchange.”
Hybridity as a central element of Islamic art and architecture is also an animating factor in Taweel’s work, “all the sense of these cultural elements of Islamic art are essentially evolved from cross cultural experiences,” something that Taweel terms the “globalization of the local.”
Taweel has seen this process at work in her own personal history, “I really grew up around a lot of artisan objects from the Arab world and there was always a lot of emphasis that these were special because they were handmade and they had our cultural heritage within them.” Such an emphasis on the cultural significance of artisan objects influenced Taweel’s own interest in copper as a material, due to its ability to be moulded by hand and Taweel’s avoidance of power tools and machinery which are required for working with iron or steel.
Opening up the possibilities of working with metal has also been characteristic of Taweel’s practice. Through collaborating with three young students from the Liverpool region for the exhibition Al Jaale’ah (Locally Global) at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Taweel was able to imagine a pathway into metalsmithing for these young Muslim women, despite metalsmithing being a historically male-dominated practice.
As Taweel describes, “the project was for me in response to my practice as a coppersmith and that I have had a difficult time to seek knowledge and material in the practice, so I've had to self-initiate my experimentation and that's great but I kind of wanted to open it up and introduce it to these students so that they just as much have an insight into how they could explore the material.”
Being in residence at Parramatta Artist Studios has also enabled Taweel to experiment outside of traditional metalsmithing processes. Unable to construct a full workshop due to the strictures of inhabiting an old office building, Taweel has remained agile in her approach to metalsmithing, “it's interesting because the circumstance that I work in and also the work that I make kind of share that synchrinity about transience and fluidity.”
Having begun with a focus on the refined and looking towards a sense of perfection through developing her mastery of the material and shaping it into exquisite forms, Taweel has more recently ventured in the direction of exploring the meta-processes behind her work, “by opening up my practice in exploring space and structure in moved me away from refinement and I started to really consider what does this process mean.”
Developing the concept of an inner architecture generated through the installation of Taweel’s work with lighting, Taweel argues that rather than her work being a response to physical architecture, “It’s more about the internal experiences one feels and how they can connect to faith but also living between culture and living between places.”
Encapsulated in the work Tracing Transcendence, displayed at Melbourne’s The Substation as part of the Next Wave festival, Taweel reflected on her own practice as “about transformation and the transformations we experience every day, whether miniscule or quite grand.” This is partly demonstrated through Taweel’s work with copper, as a both aesthetic and functional material, but also derives from Taweel’s personal experience of living between cultures.
This hybrid identity has also enabled Taweel to re-evaluate Western art historical categories applied to art from the Islamic world such as the ‘decorative arts’.
“Through a Western lens the decorative can be viewed as quite one level or surface, but coming from my own cultural heritage it's inundated in so many layers and meaning. So for me exploring the Islamic decorative arts there's such a cultural significance in the material or in the actual decorative relief that I find really important to acknowledge but also unpack.”
Continuing this approach, Taweel will exhibit her work as part of The New Sacred at Mosman Art Gallery from July 14 to September 8, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in the exhibition Copper which runs from July 28 to September 1 and We Are All Connected To Campbelltown In One Way Or Another at Campbelltown Arts Centre from August 11 to October 14. Find out more about her work here: http://shireentaweel.com/