Using faith to find stillness and belonging in the Lebanese diaspora: A feature on Shireen Taweel
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Using faith to find stillness and belonging in the Lebanese diaspora: A feature on Shireen Taweel

Stories/322 , Issues/Multiculturalism , Issues/Arts & Culture
Parramatta Artists Studios, Parramatta NSW 2150, Australia
1st Jun 2018
Using faith to find stillness and belonging in the Lebanese diaspora: A feature on Shireen Taweel
Shireen Taweel is a Lebanese-Australian artist inspired by cross-cultural interactions and her identity as a Muslim woman.

"How does transformation happen? It's through exchange and through practices meeting each other and people meeting each other."

Shireen Taweel is an artist currently showcasing at the "Parramatta Artist Studio". Her practice focuses on cross cultural interactions and is deeply influenced by Islamic decorative arts. She takes concepts such as materiality and spatiality and brings them to vivid, imagined life in her practice.

I speak with Shireen on a Sunday afternoon. The distance between us, from Melbourne to Sydney, cannot be ignored but does not disrupt our conversation or the topics we touch upon.

Shireen's artwork.
Shireen's artwork.

For Shireen, her sense of home is "very fluid." She constantly feels in between two places: her home now, Australia, and her parent's home, in Lebanon.

Both of Shireen's parents were born in North Lebanon. Her father's family later migrated to Sydney, and her mother moved, too, in her early 20s after marrying Shireen's father.

Shireen loves her Arab heritage and cites her strong connection to Arabic as a language and cultural practices of Lebanon. Her parents instilled their culture into the "foundation of [her] upbringing in Australia".

An aspect of her heritage that she retains her is Muslim faith. Her faith has acted as an antidote to her sense of "uprooted-ness"; though intangible, it helps her feel grounded. Unlike places, faith can be retained despite a change in geography.

"My faith has helped me find a sense of connection and meaning that's the most beautiful and valuable thing," Shireen said.

Shireen's artwork.
Shireen's artwork.

Her religion has also birthed a deeper understanding of time. She finds in her religion, particular in relation to prayer time, that time becomes "really unique" and has a "timelessness about it".

"Time can play to different calendars. For Islam, the lunar calendar is very significant for the sense of time and a lot of practitioners abide by that," Shireen says.

The Lebanese are extremely hospitable people and for them, hospitality is another mechanism for human connection.

Lebanese hospitality does not feel like it has ulterior motives. There is no sense of a transaction, like you have to pay in kind for what you have received. Shireen finds that the Lebanese focus strongly on "harmony" in their hospitality, .

Shireen believes that Australia's current inhospitality to outsiders, be it immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees, is rooted in Australia's violent past. She sees the 200 years of violence and its impact colour even in interpersonal interactions.

"This violent settlement in Australia was all about taking or as people say, stealing. I feel like this Anglo colonisation of Australia has in the 21st century extended into that inhospitable behaviour to people that had different cultural practices, languages and backgrounds," Shireen said.

Shireen's artwork.
Shireen's artwork.

She finds that white Australians use language that establishes a difference. There is process of unconscious "other-ing" here.

This extends into her reception in the arts industry. Shireen is never an "artist" or an "Australian artist". She is constantly labeled a "Muslim artist". While her faith influences her identity and practice, it is also a deeply personal and intimate component of her life. There is so much more complexity to Shireen's practice that extends beyond the simple label "Muslim artist". One stand out element is the materialization of her faith into physical objects.

"The practice of faith in many non-Western religions manifests in so many forms." Shireen said.

Shireen's artwork.
Shireen's artwork.

Shireen's practice is directly influenced by Islamic decorative arts. She calls it the "visual language of heritage". Her parents' home had humble objects from places like Lebanon, Syria and Morocco.

Islamic decorative arts often feature copper as a material. Shireen loves copper because of its "conductive nature": electricity slips through it to light up a bulb.

Shireen's use of copper is particularly significant. She uses it to light up forotten parts of her heritage. To incorporate copper into her practice, Shireen transformed herself into a coppersmith.

"I could not access those processes except from a distance and kind of in isolation," Shireen said.

Shireen's hands feel a "strong cultural connection" in her practice. Her sense of touch acts like a compass that helps her gauge her Lebanese heritage and identity as an "Arab Australian" more extensively.

"The physicality of making has brought out all my ideas. It has never come out conceptually, if not for that process beforehand," Shireen said.

Shireen's current exhibition for the Next Wave Festival is called "Tracing Transcendence", and asks questions about the mosque's position in Australia. It talks about the mosques and environment around it in the past, present and future. A curiosity about burial grounds set off this spark in Shireen. She remembers encountering a rural burial ground and a "tin shed mosque" in Regional NSW in the Outback.

"I never realized that local, vernacular materials were ever used for a mosque like this," Shireen says.

This led her to tracing the history of the Ghans in Australia. When the British arrived in Australia, they could not infiltrate Australia's vast outback, so they recruited cameleers from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and shipped them to Australia. When the cameleers came they brought their cultural and religious practices and sense of community to Australia. They peacefully assimilated into life in Australia and went on to marry people from various races, such as First Nations people.

"This is a form of settlement that counters the violent history of settlement in Australia" Shireen said. "The cameleers exchange in Australia was one of strong cultural harmony and exchange."

Despite this, the Cameleer's presence has largely been forgotten about.

"I found that interesting but its been nearly erased," Shireen says.

In her exhibition, Shireen focuses on the possibilities that can arise from positive cultural exchanges. She also hopes to counter the hostility and fear to mosques in Australia.

Mosques are places for communal connection and cultural exchanges.

"A Bangladeshi Muslim or a Pakistani Muslim can pray. They can come to connect or even come to a community night," Shireen says. "People share their stories, they hang out and their children hang out."

Shireen's art undoubtedly tackles complex issues. I ask her if she created art for activist purposes. But she is not interested in activism's intensity; instead, she is more interested in the creation of harmony through her practice. She describes her art as "quiet" and "reflective".

"By deeply exploring my heritage I hope to evoke the audience's sense of heritage." Shireen says. "My practice is very internalized. It's from my own position of internalizing the diaspora and navigating that."

Shireen's exhibition "Tracing Transcendence" runs at the Substation until the 16th of June. Catch an artist lead panel discussion on the 12th of May and a Ramadan Feast on the 17th of May.

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