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In Conversation with Aseel Tayah اسيل تايه

Aseel Tayah اسيل تايه is an award-winning artist, director, producer and activist from Palestine who has been living and working in Melbourne since 2016.

This year she brings her latest project Tahlila: Lullabies under the stars to Abbotsford for Convent Kids.

Have you always been an artist? When did you realise it was your calling?

I started singing when I was really little­—around Grade 2 or 3. I just sang for family and around people. I loved the feeling of creating something and making songs. But I also enjoyed singing cultural songs that were disappearing and memorising them from Aunties and Uncles. Then I started drawing in the summer holidays when I was in Grade 6­. I drew the different shapes of shishas in summer clubs and vacation places where people brought their shisha and smoked them. I didn’t come close to the shisha­. I stayed far, far away and tried to imagine it and draw it from afar!

In high school, that creativity disappeared for a bit until I sang a song in front of the school, and everybody started calling me “the star.” After school, I studied Pharmacy, which had nothing to do with art, until my inner calling said, “Aseel! You have to make art!” The more I make art, the more I feel that it’s what I was supposed to do with my life. Pharmacy helped me bring people together, like chemicals come together to heal souls, like medicine will do. Anything else was just an accident!

Please tell us about your journey to Melbourne and starting your career here. 

My journey to Melbourne was weird! I left Palestine to go and get married in Jordan. From there, I flew to Singapore for my honeymoon and then went to Bunbury in Western Australia­. I stayed for a year and a half in a place that did not know anything about me. I saw so many different people who had different bukjehs to their lives. Bukjeh is the sack of belongings that people carry when they come to Australia. I thought, “there’s a lot of stories to tell about these people, and I would like to help tell them.” I joined the Emerging Cultural Leaders program at Footscray Community Arts Centre. Bukjeh—as an installation and idea of the stories inside those bukjehs­—started then. Slowly, slowly, it became a team. It became a storytelling space that was inspiring and heart-warming.

Your shows have beautiful names that give audiences a glimpse into different cultures. Please tell us about the name of your show, Tahlila.

“Tahlila” in Arabic is ‘the stories and songs before home.’ It’s like holding a child and rocking them, humming, singing, and indicating that it’s time for bed. It’s when the sky is dark, and the stars are out and hopefully, the moon is full, and you are rocking a child to sleep.

Keeping the Arabic names and songs keeps the show true to our culture and identity. Encouraging people to say different words gives new meanings and ideas to peoples’ lives.

Tahlila creates a space to celebrate and enjoy lullabies. Why do you think lullabies are so important and beloved by people? What do they mean to you?

Lullabies are really meaningful to everybody; they are our first connections to our mums. We hear them in the womb. We hear them everywhere. We connect to a loving, warming touch from people even before we are born. We hear them when breastfeeding, before bed, and when we are scared. I did my Masters on the importance of lullabies, for healing, for mothers and babies. They create important bonds worldwide and help people heal as humans, no matter if they have children or not. To me, lullabies are really strong bonds. I still sing the songs that my mum made up for me­—her own songs­—to myself and my daughter. They help me heal, relax and feel better.

Tahlila has multiple parts. This year, you are inviting the community to join in making a canopy while listening to and learning lullabies. Next year, there will be a show under the finished canopy with lullabies in multiple languages, including Arabic and First Nations languages. How can a canopy setting help audiences feel relaxed and welcome? 

The beautiful thing about these canopies is that they are made by our community. They are the community’s own stories, feelings and touches—beautiful emotions and colours from different cultures. I call them “triangles of love.” I would love to create more of them and make a space where community members can listen to their own lullabies.

What made you realise that you love to make art with and for children? 

When I had my own child. I became a clown, a performer, a theatre maker and a set designer for her! I saw the “wows” in her eyes and how much fun she had and wanted to create more of it. That’s where it started. When I made the first version of Lullabies Under the Stars, I loved seeing “wows” in other children’s eyes and mothers’ faces.

How can performing arts bring different cultures together?

So many ways! I like shows that make mums the heroes. In my productions, we always ask the mums to sing and move with the performers. A child seeing their mum singing her own language, and seeing other people join in, makes them appreciate their own culture and different cultures. An intimate artistic space brings together respect, appreciation, love and cultural richness in a way that nothing else really does. Between myself, Caleena Sansbury (a Ngarrindjeri, Narrunga and Kaurna mother) and Camile Feghali’s music, we bring different cultures into a shared space. It feels very magical.