Art

Artist Reframes Islam Through Working Class Britain

British artist Catherine Borowski finds identity in her mother’s death.

by Catherine Chapman
23 November 2016, 5:10pm

Installation Design Process (and the Working Class) by artist Catherine Borowski. Image: Aron Klein

For British artist Catherine Borowski, growing up on a North London council estate with a mother who had converted to Islam was not without its challenges. With Titled Design Process (and the Working Class), however, life between two worlds has now been translated into an installation exploring her own identity.

Borowski utilizes a minimalistic material-driven approach to construct a sculpture of 520 upright wood spindles, geometrical symmetry, and familiar materials that give nod to both Western and Islamic cultures, which became apparent to Borowski long after beginning the piece.  

“When I was age 8 or 9 at school, everyone was told to draw their front doors,” Borowski tells The Creators Project. “All the other kids in my class drew really beautiful Edwardian front doors with stained glass and I drew a white door with a number and a letter box. It was the first time that I realised that we were poor and living on a housing estate. It made me feel a bit embarrassed.”

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Design Process (and the Working Class) by artist Catherine Borowski. Image: Aron Klein

The lack of decorative elements in Borowski’s childhood home is reflected in the all-white installation. The viewer, however, remains engaged due to the irregular placement of the spindles. “Everyone at some point has probably lived in a flat or house with a spindle staircase but they’ve probably never seem placed in multiples in a grid formation,” explains Borowski.

Here lies Borowski’s dual identity, speaking to her mother’s conversion to Islam—a minority of white women at the time—when the artist was about 10 or 11 years old. Brought up in an Islamic household, Borowski felt renewed separation from her neighborhood but now strongly identifies with the religion (though she has never converted). Last year, Borowski’s mother died while on pilgrimage to Mecca, leaving Borowski—unable to enter Mecca as a non-Muslim—isolated once more. Her work took on a new meaning.

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Design Process (and the Working Class) by artist Catherine Borowski. Image: Aron Klein

“It started off about being working class, coming from a poor family living in a council flat,” says Borowski. “And sort of evolved into being about a daughter of a Muslim convert who died in Mecca.” Her mother to be buried in Mecca—what she always wanted—Borowski turned her attention to the gravesite coordinates that the British consulate in Saudi Arabia had provided her with.

“I just started looking at photos of Islamic graveyards in Mecca,” Borowski says. “I realized that they really looked like my spindle piece, just white markers.” Islamic graves typically come without headstones or elaborative monuments, a simplistic style echoing the aniconism of traditional Islamic art—and, from Borowski’s point of view, life on a council estate.

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Design Process (and the Working Class) by artist Catherine Borowski. Image: Aron Klein

“I think my mother would be really surprised that I was talking about Islam because I was maybe hostile to it when I was growing up,” says Borowski. “My mom felt empowered by it so I’m definitely not coming from a critical point of view, which is probably quite weird in our culture where we’re encouraged to see Islam as being oppressive to women.”

The next step, Borowski says, will be to cut down the wooden spindles to the same height required on the grave markers found in Islamic graveyards, with hopes of exhibiting it in an Islamic country like Saudi Arabia, where women do not visit cemeteries.

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Design Process (and the Working Class) by artist Catherine Borowski. Image: Aron Klein

Catherine Borowski’s work was part of a group show You Get What You’re Given, which was on display at Hoxton Arches from November 17, 2016 to November 20, 2016. See more of Catherine Borowski’s work here

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