Blake Prize review: The migration of the sacred

Shireen Taweel, Shoe Bathers, 2022. Installation shot at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, winner 68th Blake Prize. Photography: Silversalt photography.

Sydney artist Shireen Taweel was the worthy recipient of the 68th Blake Prize for religious and spiritual art, awarded on 18 May, for her installation Shoe Bathers. Taweel’s winning artwork, two pairs of copper hammam shoes and assemblages of olive oil soap stacked on packing crates, signifies the migration of the sacred, a theme well-known to the prize’s Western Sydney audience, and one that captures the contemporary religious mood at a time when the local is reasserting itself over the global.

Taweel’s platformed hammam shoes, worn by bathers to stand above the soapy water and dreck of the baths, are finely wrought in copper in a traditional style. Handmade soap adds a touch of the personal and intimate. These artefacts are packed on plywood pallets to show the transportability and adaptability of ritual.

“The ceremonial objects are arranged on packing crates in preparation for a migration of cultural and ritual practices, a continuum of the creation of unities,” Taweel’s artist’s statement reads. Shoe Bathers shows how our sacred things travel with us, from our “homelands” and the past, to the present worlds in which we now find ourselves. It’s an optimistic message, resonant with the artist’s broader practice, which brings together traditional coppersmithing techniques, the contemplation of astronomical bodies, and Islamic geometry.

Shoe Bathers was by far the best-conceived and executed piece among the finalists. Yet contemporary religious discourse increasingly questions the fungibility of sacred things. Shoe Bathers consequently offers itself for a competing interpretation—is it a ritual yet to be unpacked and performed, rather than a journey for which the artist prepares? The gap between Taweel’s intention and the installation’s effect is perhaps caused by the assemblages’ underwhelming scale, and from the transitoriness art installations evoke. The artist’s statement, that the two pieces are an “archive of profound experiences” is perhaps more true for the artist than the viewer; one is left more with the impression of longing for the familiar world in which these objects are joyfully at use, rather than their translation to unfamiliar new environs.

This ambiguity is what makes Taweel’s work appropriate for the prize. She touched the nerve that runs throughout the rest of the well-curated exhibition at Casula Powerhouse, itself a fantastic art space put to good use for the exhibition. Memory, longing for authenticity, the search for deep foundations in history, identity and place, all overlaid with intense nostalgia and sometimes its counterpart, resentment—this mood was captured in the Blake Prize but dominates everywhere in Australian art, religious or not. It was present also in the winning work of the Blake Poetry Prize, Chinese-Australian poet Coco X. Huang’s poem Three Lessons,” a paean to the search for authenticity in the depths of ethnicity, ritual and history: “Songs of blood are hard to sing—believe me, I’ve tried everything.”

Blake prize - Shireen Taweel - The Catholic Weekly
A 10-foot tall cross made from the disembodied heads of tickle-me Elmos, pikachus and Winnie the Pooh toys, suspended in a pool of water. Photo: Supplied.

The pre-eminence of memory and nostalgia in art makes the objects and places of our memories seem more real than our present selves, in which we are unsettled, uncomfortable, and decentred. The tenderness with which the several Muslim finalists took up this mood made the usual critical, cynical and deconstructive Christian artworks feel out of place. One entry, a 10-foot tall cross made from the disembodied heads of tickle-me Elmos, pikachus and Winnie the Pooh toys, suspended in a pool of water, was displayed prominently in the entrance to the gallery. A provocation reminiscent of the Banksy-Adbusters 2000s, it felt supremely stale. Other pop-art pastiches of icons and Christian art on display were also now beyond boring.

A few artworks bucked this trend. Tiwi Islander artist Johnathon World Peace Bush depicted a joyful St Matthew in an icon painted in his local style, and Amber Subaki’s The Psalm Card showed the artist as a child in the style of a holy card, her withered arm depicted as a sign of grace working through weakness. Other Christian artworks tied the cross or saints to cultural practices in the Pacific Islands, Lithuania, or the natural world. Nevertheless, the prize continues to attract polemical, rather than fond, representations of Christian faith—as was the case in last year’s winning work, S.J Norman’s, Cicatrix, a bloody piece of performance art evoking Christ’s scourging at the pillar, in protest of Indigenous deaths in custody.

Blake prize review - Shireen Taweel - The Catholic Weekly
A religious artwork. Photo: Supplied.

Despite the ostensibly radical message of many of the artworks, religious art appears to be stuck in this tired paradigm, giving it a conservative feel. And since it was taken up by Liverpool Council in 2016, the properly religious dimension of the Blake Prize has been totally subsumed by the multiculturalism portfolio and the “lived religion” approach to academic studies of religion, in which popular habits of faith take precedence over the transcendent, dogma, sacred texts, and hierarchy. This anthropological approach obviates the possibility that God might stand over and against our settled (and fallen) cultural habits, and even against our habitual nostalgia and desire for security. The notion of judgment, or of sin, or of redemption, is absent from a thoroughly “naturalised” religious art. Given how vigorous supernatural faith is in Sydney’s communities—for good and ill, given recent violence—the entrants seem to be themselves in transit away from the sources of faith that would make their artworks feel more contemporary.

Taweel’s work is a genuine, if gentle and unassuming, exception to all this, and one path forward. She shows in a very “catholic” mode that artefacts are an intrinsic part of our religious sensibility. We are not “heads on sticks” but wholes, needing the sacred to permeate the ordinary, judging and beautifying our human creations, raising them to sacramental means of mediating our relationship with God. Exiles need this more than anyone. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his Spirit of the Liturgy, we go into exile to worship; for Christians whose homeland is not of this world, the sacred is always in transit. If conceptual art in general gives the impression of hitting peak depletion, Taweel, drawing on sacred crafts, points to the welcome recombination of art with craft, the cosmos with the intimate, the nostalgic past with the joyful present, and the sacred with ordinary life.

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