Aseel Tayah

You Are Not A Boy

A sensory installation and performance that aims to oppose unjust cultural norms and take up resistance in a bid to make a change, You are not a boy is inspired by a documentary depicting a mother re-enacting a cultural custom of inhibiting the sexual pleasures of women onto her daughter at the age of puberty.

A short outdoor performance in which Tayah told stories of women “mutilated, verbally abused, chastised or prohibited from speaking out” because they were ‘not a boy,’ while pinning squares of fabric inscribed with the Arabic word for ‘taboo’ onto onlookers’ clothing. Saying ‘yes’ to these and so many other commissions, over almost a decade, meant participating in worlds, and sometimes being drawn into making them: transformed sites, ephemeral destinations and the intimate landscapes of difference and togetherness in the places so created.

“Young Palestinian-Australian artist Aseel Tayah’s you are not a boy is a gallery-based installation work, and as such its inclusion under the rubric of live art could again be queried. However, a weekend performance given by Tayah drew her audience literally into the fabric of the work, implicating onlookers in ways that were both political and intimate: it was both a one-off gift to the senses and a compelling call to action.

Tayah, appearing on the gallery’s outdoor balcony in a luxurious, floor-length gown, sings a haunting Arabic lullaby (I later learn it is about a girl-child listening to people tell her what to do). She pauses at intervals to recount stories as she walks amid the gathered audience—stories of women mutilated, verbally abused, chastised or prohibited from speaking out, and told every time that it is “because you are not a boy.” On her skirt are pinned squares of fluttering fabric on which the Arabic word for “taboo” is inscribed. As she sings, she removes them one by one and pins them to the clothes of audience members. In an entreaty that is both gentle and firm, she asks us to think about the things our cultures suppress, saying, “When you see these things in future, will you be silent or will you choose to speak?”

Tayah’s work is economical, minimalist even. Her installation is simply an illuminated column of translucent fabric inscribed with the Arabic for “you are not a boy” and a set of mirrors painted with the same words, with an invitation to share self-portraits on social media in support of speaking out. In the performance—graceful, gracious and ritualistic—the audience is pinpointed, literally, as the place where taboo might reside. Through the slightest of means, and the seductive, sensory entanglement of stunning song and pointed monologue, Aseel Tayah creates a fleeting yet memorable relationship between us all, uniting the fabric of our respective worlds.”

-Urszula Dawkins, Real Time