Even before we found ourselves living through a global pandemic, most of us have experienced being locked in a holding pattern: either actual, as in being stuck on an aeroplane going nowhere, or metaphorical, feeling that same sensation of futility in our everyday lives. As a near-universal experience, Holding Patterns seems an apt title for a series of four exhibitions initiated as a direct response to the many and various difficulties we all face, wrought by COVID-19.
“None of us are untouched. Many of our precious traditions, ways of life and institutional activities have, for all intents and purposes, been suspended. Holding Patterns was conceived as a direct response to these challenging circumstances,” explains Reina Takeuchi who co-curated the series, along with Con Gerakaris, for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
Takeuchi says that while their practices are very different, the four artists presented through Holding Patterns (Kien Situ in July; Crossing Threads® in August; Shireen Taweel in September; and Sofiyah Ruqayah in October) are all linked by the fact that “they infuse traditional Asian techniques and labour-intensive processes in their art making, while speaking to the hybridity of Asian-Australian contemporary art practices.”
This sense of cultural hybridity is also becoming a widespread experience. As we learn to live with constant uncertainty, anxiety and danger while simultaneously trying to remain productive—as we adapt to the ‘new-normal’ of pandemic life—we have all become hybrid creatures of sorts.
Sofiyah Ruqayah, whose Holding Patterns show is on in October, found that this painful process of adaptation had a profound influence on her work. “Things stopped making sense and started to lose significance. The frenetic push of art to the digital sphere didn’t sit well with me—like it should have been the least of our collective concerns at the time—and subsequently I began to feel like nothing important was worth saying. After clocking the immense privilege that allowed me to even begin to entertain that sentiment, I started to think about what was left,” she explains. “I’ve always been attracted to the generative potential of nonsense, fantasy, and dreams, but the pandemic has thoroughly solidified my affinity for the irrational and chaotic.”
In Holding Patterns, Ruqayah presents both digital collages and mixed media sculptures that celebrate the fecundity of mutation, the mysterious divinations of dreams, and the unpredictable interconnection of all life on earth. In her swirling collages, it is impossible to distinguish the boundaries between what is animal, vegetable or mineral. In her sculptures, Ruqayah uses storm glasses, an antiquated tool for predicting weather, as an evocative vessel for expressing the capriciousness of dreams.
Although Ruqayah does acknowledge the impact of her Indonesian, Muslim and Catholic heritage— saying that knowledge passed down to her through her family was infused with both spirituality and mysticism—the Sydney-born artist is clear that her work is not about her specific cultural identity.
In sharp contrast, Shireen Taweel, whose work features in Holding Patterns in September, says, “Cultural heritage and identity are inseparable from my work practice.”
Taweel elaborates, saying, “Sydney, as a city, has only existed for the past forty years for my immediate family who are Lebanese migrants. So it’s important I retain strong ties to Lebanon and the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, and infuse these with my life and recent family history in Australia.”
And the artist, who was also born in Sydney, has done just that. Not only is Taweel known for intricately pierced, large-scale sculptures crafted from sheets of copper— techniques which she says are “based in the traditional artisan skills of the coppersmithing communities of the MENA region”—but she also actively engages in teaching these skills to younger artists. As Taweel explains, “The history of the community has always been to pass on the knowledge and skills to future generations of artisans, to keep the practice alive.”
When the pandemic first hit Australia, Taweel found herself in Tasmania, and she decided to ride it out there. But other than living in a remote cabin in the bush, rather than in Sydney, she says the pandemic hasn’t affected her daily life too much. “I usually spend up to 12 hours a day self-isolating in my studio anyhow,” she says.
However, like Ruqayah, the artist has taken the opportunity to reassess the meaning of her work in the context of our new normal. In Holding Patterns, Taweel is showing her suspended sculpture, Tracing Transcendence, 2018, which was inspired by the first mosques in Australia. Her aim was to consider, through vernacular architecture, what the future of the mosque in this country might look like. “I think this concept ties in well with what’s happening around us today,” she says. “There is plenty of global uncertainty. In the future, architectural space will be renegotiated to cater for climate catastrophe, pandemics, etc, so this will have a bearing on what community and public gatherings will look like.”
And with ongoing uncertainty in mind, 4A presents Holding Patterns in such a way that visitors can view the show through their spacious window façade: a neat adaptation making art available 24/7.
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is currently open with social distancing and hygiene measures in place. You are encouraged to book a time in advance to view the current exhibition – details here.
This article was originally published in the September/October print edition of Art Guide Australia.