Shireen Taweel

Shireen Taweel’s latest exhibition ‘Switching Codes’ takes influence from multilingualism in Lebanon and Australia, embodying a philosophy of language that is poetic, transformative, and communal. Her body of work investigates the power underlying the construction of language but also the power of language to construct realities, histories, and selves.

Reacting to the changing world around them, every generation creates a new vernacular fused with new technology, compounding words and introducing and localising foreign loan words. Noting these fluctuations, linguistic conservatives oft-decry that language is ‘sullied’ or ‘dying’ as the ‘denigration’ of language comes to represent the desecration of history. However, Shireen Taweel’s solo exhibition ‘Switching Codes’ at Fairfield Gallery and Museum reveals that language is an evolving, embodied, living practice. Her new copper sculptural installations involve sound recordings that display language as a means of development and communication, rather than a fixed set of rules or values. That is, for Taweel, language is never lost; merely transformed.

For many visitors from Fairfield in Western Sydney, the concept of code-switching or diglossia may already be familiar. Whilst code-switching was first coined in 1954 by sociolinguist Einar Haugen to describe the mixing of two or more languages, today code-switching may also be applied to behavioural and social situations performing several functions: shifting between formal and informal conversation, to signify unity or difference. In the diverse milieu of Western Sydney, code-switching has emerged as a form of socialisation. It privileges interpersonal intimate communication in a diverse and transnational world. As discourse analyst Peter Auer suggests, code-switching is not merely a mirror to reflect social situations but the very vehicle through which social situations are created. By inviting visitors to listen deeply together, Taweel replicates these interactions.

Beyond Western Sydney Taweel is influenced by the languages of Beirut, Lebanon, where diaglossia is common with French, English and Arabic often spoken in the same sentence. She reflects, ‘Throughout my youth I was focused on languages within my studies, mainly French and Arabic, due to them being used in my family home … when returning to Lebanon as a teenager I was exposed to the interchangeable use of multiple languages.

I have formerly studied them at university prior to attending art school, through a degree in international studies and translation.’ The local dialect in Lebanon is a tongue that has evolved through a plethora of cultural influences, such as Turkish, Persian, French, English and Syriac. Taweel investigates these syntheses in her sound works and through her metal conical sculptures Devices for Listening (2020): ‘It’s an abstract of the process taking place I feel socially in Lebanon: words are grouped together and broken down through sound and expression and then reborn as a new vocabulary.’ Her sound pieces manipulate tonal variations in these languages creating a ‘hybrid fourth language.’ This new fluid language violates linguistic order as an attempt to frame embodied experience and trace semantic movements abstractly. The conical shapes
of her sculptures envelop visitors in the elided waves of noise, replicating the phenomenological experience of speaking and listening and the ‘receptive side of language and the process of transformation it takes in becoming an active outcome.’

This process of deconstruction is reflected in Taweel’s innovative use of copper, reinventing the traditional repoussé and engraving techniques which she first learnt in Gaziantep, Turkey, from local artisans and coppersmiths in 2019. Taweel draws parallels between copper’s malleable, transformative potential and the plasticity of sound and language. In Taweel’s hands the architectonic material becomes a vessel for language, giving oral tradition a visual form.

This traditional material is given new relevance in Taweel’s engraved copper tablets, which ‘present a symbolic return to the earliest known texts, however also refer to communication today with the tablet being a premise for so many technological devices.’ Taweel conflates the ancient with the contemporary as French, Arabic and English overlap in a palimpsest of hand engraved text. Her experimentation becomes activation, asserting that imitation is not the only form of engagement with tradition.

In ‘Switching Codes’ Taweel’s works are displayed ‘like an archaeological site, with the essence of antiquity’, forging the link between past and present, emphasising the constant re-negotiation and re-invention of language. By collapsing time, Taweel implies that the world has always been culturally heterogeneous and there have always been transcultural transgressions. The way we speak is the nexus of intersecting cultural exchange. The way we listen is to acknowledge the polyphony and polysemy of our world.    

Shireen Taweel: Switching Codes
7 November 2020 – 13 February 2021
Fairfield City Museum & Gallery, NSW

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