Shireen Taweel: Intricate explorations of geometry, culture and disapora

Artist Shireen Taweel spoke with Natalie Wadwell about her work before showing at Bankstown Arts Centre. 

The arts and artists can fill multiple roles in society. What drew you to the arts?

For me it all goes back to family. From an early age my mother drew me to the artisan qualities of the Middle East, may it have been from metal-smithing, glass blowing, wood carving or mosaics she highlighted the value of the hand made and each of the skills behind these arts. Through the Islamic Decorative Arts and Islamic architecture I felt that I could access the wider arts community by appreciating qualities of the haptic. Having a background of linguistics in Arabic and French my practice naturally opened as one which culturally explores the relationship between the local and the global.

You grew up in Lakemba before moving to Tasmania and now we are lucky to have you back in Sydney. Does place play a significant role in your practice?

Growing up part of the greater Lebanese community of Western Sydney has shaped and influenced my practice through being geographically immersed within a cultural melting pot of a great diversity of backgrounds and in how this diversity of communities cross-culturally share and grow together. I owe my experience of living in Hobart, Tasmania as one that grounded and nurtured my practice which allowed me to dedicate all my energy in developing my skills in coppersmithing. The sense of space and time which exists in Tasmania was invaluable towards how I could focus on the processes of coppersmithing while also destill the essence behind why I was drawn to sculpture.

We have spoken before about the importance of finding a sense of community. Is this something you like to explore with your work?

The works come directly from my own experiences and observations within belonging to a community of diaspora which expands and connects with communities all over the globe. I believe in the empowerment of having a sense of community, through its nature of inclusivity that opens the potential to propel and stimulate each involved. Through the fluidity of belonging to a community which looks back and forth at past and present, the local and global, the works create a cross-cultural dialogue between Eastern and Western structures of society and faith as the sculptures break the doctrines and open interactivity between cultures.

On first viewing your work, words such as stunning and intricate – both the objects themselves and the shadows cast – immediately came to mind. Can you explain what aspects of your Middle Eastern heritage inspires your practice at the moment?

My own cultural heritage within the Islamic Decorative Arts are a source of reference and inspiration in the development of forms, as well as the application of decorative techniques and consideration of sacred objects. The works are informed through the art of copper-smithing, my engagement in researching antiquities at a hight of their art from medieval Baghdad to Damascus inspires my own processes in the making of the works. By referencing traditional processes in my practice, the material is reworked to interact with a new sense of form and language within the works conceptual voice.  This shift in process reflects conversations around the sensitivities of the immigrant experience of transience and how one may transform and make room for different practices simultaneous to echoes of tradition and heritage of origin. Tradition here is presented as a dynamic force: alive, innovating and life-enhancing.

You’ve spoken about your work as ‘forms that sit in a space between jewellery and sculpture.’ Can you speak about what drew you to the copper-smithing process and – without giving away too much – a bit about the process you go through to make one piece?

The works push the boundaries of coppersmithing where skills I’ve adapted from jewellery-making transform each work in their variety of scale. By mixing up the sense of what is the front and creating forms of varying scale, the works stimulate the space shared with the body. Here the works move away from the defined modes of sculpture. Influences from a diversity of mosques are a key foundation to the development of my work. By applying progressive technical applications entirely by hand to sheet copper, such as through piercings with the manipulation of mark making and forming of the material, I am able to loosen the architectural significance within the works.The surface treatment of the works are left to reveal the process of making, truth revealed here unmasks my challenges in working in a highly technical and sophisticated material. In its own beauty of process the diverse colouration left on the surfaces of the works strongly speak that they have been through a process of transformation themselves.

You have the opportunity to join the Parramatta Artist Studios in mid-2017. What are you looking forward to from this experience? Do you have a personal outcome you want to meet?

After completing my BFA in Hobart in 2015 my intention to move back to Sydney was greatly influenced from my desire to reconnect with my community based in the greater area of Western Sydney. A studio at PAS is invaluable in that I can base my practice next year in the fastest growing cultural hub of Western Sydney. Apart from my use of a studio at PAS I am enthusiastic to be involved in the City of Parramatta’s cultural programme. My intent in developing my work next year is also to reach a greater and diverse range of audiences. By having a studio at PAS I aim to stimulate my interaction with artists and local art spaces and am eager in creating opportunities to exhibit to local audiences.

You are exhibiting as a part of Bankstown Art Centre’s Night Sky later this month. What can our readers expect from this show?

The series exhibited in a blue night re-interprets Islamic inspired geometry that heralds the greater science of the Islamic world mirroring its advances in cosmology during the ‘Golden Age’. The sculptures within the installation will speak of the transience of space and movement, of upheaval and rupture. This encompasses a constant interaction with new practices, behaviours and customs. Coming from a diaspora community, the universalities of connectivity to traditional culture is a luminous one which propels my experiences into new practices and discovery. The works explore this sense of growing to be guided by my Islamic heritage and the ancient mapping of the night’s sky.


This interview was first published on State of the Arts Media on May 4, 2017 .

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