“Nawartouna!” Words from Katherine Toukhy, 2016 Create Change Artist-In-Residence
October 20, 2016
2016 Create Change Artist-In-Residence Katherine Toukhy’s 2016 Public Art Potluck speech:
“In Arabic we like to say “Nawartouna” which literally just means “you light us up.” There is no English equivalent for this. And if you look around the room, you will find that this poetry is truth.
I start with Arabic, my native tongue, because it’s precious to me and I feel like I can be more of who I am and who we are, when I speak it …. It’s a personal thing that has become political, in a global culture where people are getting pulled off airplanes or searched at checkpoints or physically assaulted because this language that we are is hated and feared, for all the wrong reasons.
The more I work with my language, through “The Khayamiyya Monument” a project commissioned by The Laundromat Project this year, that brings together stories of Arab women immigrants and U.S. female veterans, the more I remember that it is a language of incredible generosity and sweetness. And when I visit the Arab American Association in Bay Ridge, and work with the women there, I hear phrases like “ enti ya amar “ – meaning literally “you, like the moon” a term of endearment, spoken by the aunties there.
As an Egyptian woman, raised here in the Northeastern U.S., who comes from a long line of creative people who would have never called themselves artists, coming into my role as an “artist”- the type of self-driven self-interested artist we learn to be here in the Western institutions- has not been a comfortable or seamless path.
I was blessed with immigrant parents, solid middle class people, who came here and worked hard, and hoped that I would become a doctor,,, then a lawyer,, then a pharmacist,,, or marry one… Well none of those things turned out to be my life. And still the self-driven self-interested artist thing, that I was picking up in the culture all around me here in the New York didn’t seem to be quite my thing either.
But I had this language, and this imagination, and this need to show Americans- especially post 9/11- that the places I’d travelled to with my family or on my own hard-earned dime, places that are part of me, like Egypt, Lebanon, or the Palestinian Territories- are not cesspools of terrorism. I had the need to make art. And so here I am. Enter the Laundromat Project.
If you’ve been part of The Laundromat Project community or events before, you will see something very unique in an arts and organizing setting- a group of people that reflects all shades of black and brown, making and remaking our own images, claiming our stories, shaping public opinion, all because we have urgent things to say.
It feels most real to be in community with artists who understand the value of those places where the personal or collective imagination and the political will overlap, and who use that as a motivation for our work.. Who understand that that our voices are not universal, or abstracted, or devoid of context- that they are our stories in their specificity and particularities- and that This is powerful … who understand that who we are, and what we need to express, is the very fabric that builds a community moving towards more equitable futures. That’s a radical idea if you can really envision what it means.
Maybe this is why our visions and nightmares are a threat to the traditional gatekeepers of the arts and culture spheres, or why very few of us are allowed in, as token artists of color.
But we know we are the majority, not the minority. We are doing this already, inside and outside of the gates. We are building spaces where our voices are heard, without being given permission to do so.
The Laundromat Project, to me, is one such space, which really isn’t a centralized space… But more of a network of people and ideas throughout the city, anywhere from public laundromats to neighborhood gardens to community centers… Igniting and highlighting the creativity, the joy, the struggles, that shape life here in NYC and beyond.
And one of the guiding principles of the Laundromat Project- to be propelled by love- that’s the one that always gets me. Because you can be savvy and political and creative and get big on the scene here in NYC, but in the end: Who are you? And where are your people?
Something about this right here feels right,, feels like who I am now, and where I came from, and is where I am going. I don’t have to leave it behind to grow into being an artist. Because I was propelled into this world by love, and I’ll continue to be propelled by love in the creative work I do.
We are here because we know we need change and we are change. And that we can’t do this alone. Artists create the cultural capital to move people, and the Laundromat Project brings together a network of people, resources, and encouragement to do this Right and to do this with Big love.