“As storytellers, we are the voice of many silenced people, we are the interpreters of lost songs and forgotten lullabies, and that puts us in a place of huge responsibility and huge privilege,” says Kholoud Sawaf, the 2022 recipient of the Artists 360 Creative Impact Award.
Khoulod Sawaf is a theatre and screen storyteller. Her career is built on telling stories on stages, on film, in museums, and site specific work. From her devised original theatre work, 10,000 Balconies created and produced under a $250,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, to her immersive, social practice work at Crystal Bridges with the Marshallese community, to her partnership with ArkansasStaged in bringing Curbside Theatre to the people during the pandemic, Sawaf’s work has had a considerable impact on our community both in Northwest Arkansas and beyond.
“I find that art in its nature is a way to start conversations between different people, and I think that’s where the power of it (and sometimes the danger) lies, because it can participate in shaping a narrative; and imagine what that narrative about some communities can be,” says Sawaf.
Joanna Sheehan Bell, newly appointed Arts and Culture Director at the City of Fayetteville has seen this impact firsthand. “I have seen her use her art to lift spirits out of darkness to forge connection, to transport audiences to her beloved Damascus, and most impressively, to leverage direct aid to community members in the most need, where dollars given for art become the equivalent in food for a community on the other side of the planet.”
“Part of what I want to do is help release artists from always being asked to make a large change for a community,” says Sawaf. “We often demand impact from artists (a less powerful group in a society), and rarely ask people in more powerful seats about supporting art and artists to be positioned to make a bigger change. As an artist (especially with the identity I carry), I also want to be viewed as someone who brings joyful, entertaining, fun work into the world, and not only serious and impactful, in the existential sense.”
Sawaf’s work positions storytelling as a tool of social practice and of change.
“I’m trying to constantly ask questions about the difference between presentation vs representation, and what that means in taking agency over our stories.This is where that sense of awareness in us as artists comes in, and (hopefully) makes us ask questions like: what narrative am I putting into the world about a particular community at a specific time? Does this narrative support that community (especially if it’s a vulnerable one)? Does this narrative help offer a more nuanced representation, or does it continue a particular harmful stereotype?”
Sawaf is noted for her sensitivity in creating a radically welcoming community and elevating stories of the underrepresented.
“Sawaf is a true leader and champion for voices that need to be lifted upward to be heard by our larger community here in Northwest Arkansas,” says Marissa Reyes, Chief Education Officer, Crystal Bridges Museum of Art.