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Cultivating Creative Collaboration: Sajata Epps

Giovannah Philippeaux, Development & Communications Intern (CUNY Cultural Corps), had the unique pleasure of getting to know Bronx-artist and LP neighbor Sajata Epps at her live/work studio. Over a home-cooked meal and a pot of traditional rice tea, Giovannah and Sajata talked about community, art practice, and the importance of creative collaboration. As they spoke, Giovannah learned more about Sajata’s transformative trip through Asia and how those experiences have informed her art and community practices.
 
Sajata Epps, or SAJATA-E as she is known to many, is a cultivator of the Earth, a cultivator of crafts, and a cultivator of creative collaboration. As a native Bronxite, Sajata’s experiences reflect the richness and diversity of this borough. For Sajata, to be from and of the Bronx is different than being a New Yorker. As she proclaims, the Bronx “has its own culture,” a culture steeped in creative collaboration.  
 
“When you are born in the Bronx, which is multi-diverse, you grow up with a culturally diverse background. As a Bronxite, you are a mix of everything that makes up the Bronx.”  – Sajata Epps
 

Imagine being able to knit at the age of six, and sewing your first dress by the age of twelve. This early interest in creative expression led Sajata to pursue a degree in fashion design from the Wood Tobé-Coburn School in New York. While working in the industry for some of New York’s top brands, Sajata began to notice the extensive waste that plagues the industry. Displeased with these practices, she began to integrate sustainable practices into her work, life, and art. SAJATA-E has been running her design practice in the Bronx for the last 20 years. Driven by her passion for sustainable living, she has sought to share her knowledge with her local Bronx community.    

In 2014, she helped co-found the Kelly Street Garden, a community organization that The Laundromat Project (The LP) has been collaborating with since the summer of 2014 to bring engaging creative events and programs to the historic neighborhood. It is through one such creative event that Sajata met Roslisham Ismail better known as Ise, who would introduce her to The Asian Cultural Council.

The Asian Cultural Council is dedicated to cross-cultural exchange and dialogue through art. The Council awards grants to artists and scholars, such as Ise and Sajata, to travel from: Asia to the U.S., the U.S. to Asia, or intra-Asia. The grant provides funding, program and logistics support, and mentoring to the grantees.

As a 2015 Asian Cultural Council grantee, Ise was in the U.S. to connect with other artists, expand his practice, and engage with local communities. After a studio visit with Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, Director of Programs for The LP, Ise was invited to spend some time at the Kelly Street Collaborative. His project, The Self Help Open Space Project, was inspired by the history of Kelly Street and broader South Bronx community. In 1978, Kelly Street residents banded together to rehabilitate their homes and neighborhood. Ise’s commemoration of this historic event was a one-day community gathering that centered around the preparation and sharing of an old Malay recipe for Nasi Kerabu, or blue rice and the making of a zine in collaboration with local photographer and community leader, Robert Foster along with Jennifer “Hopey” Foster. At the gathering, Sajata presented on the color changing properties of the butterfly pea flower when used as a natural dyeing agent. 

Photos from  “The Self Help Open Space Project” at Kelly Street in 2016; Photo courtesy of The LP Archive

 Photos from “The Self Help Open Space Project” at Kelly Street in 2016; Photo courtesy of The LP Archive
 

After their meeting, Ise invited two of his colleagues from the Asian Cultural Council (Stephanie Wai Ting Cheung and “Winky”) to meet with Sajata as well. So moved by her experiences, Stephanie wrote about Sajata and the Kelly Street Garden in an article for the Asian Cultural Council. This is how the Asian Cultural Council first became aware of Sajata’s work. Impressed, the organization encouraged her to apply for a grant, which she was awarded in 2018.

A condition of the Asian Cultural Council travel grant is that participants craft a unique theme to explore during their travels. For Sajata, that theme was sustainable art practices in Hong Kong, China, and Taipei, Taiwan. During her travels, Sajata met with local artists, held workshops, worked on farms, and spent time drinking tea with neighbors. In October 2018, she completed a residency at the Bamboo Curtain Studio in New Taipei City, Taiwan where she taught workshops based on her Natural Knitting Project.

SAJATA-E meeting with local artists during her travels; Photo courtesy of artist. 

The Natural Knitting Project is a collaborative teaching exhibit where participants can learn the entire process of making yarn from cleaning the wool, spinning the wool on a loom, and using natural products to dye the wool (like using onion skin to make yellow dye). Participants also get the opportunity to produce a finished product of dyed yarn. These are some of the skills that Sajata brought to China and Taiwan. In return, she learned of new ways to maintain a balanced and eco-friendly art and life practice.

Sajata’s Yarn; Photos courtesy of the artist

Creating a life of balance that is defined by collaboration with others and the environment is paramount. While in Hong Kong Sajata would see geckos scurrying through her apartment. Despite her annoyance with the critters, they were never to be killed because the geckos ate the mosquitos and played an important role in the island’s ecosystem. Living in balance with nature is a practice that Sajata found to be fundamental to the cultures of China and Taiwan. She attributes this to a shared cultural belief in the value of sustainability.

“Sustaining of self and others is an unspoken aspect of Asian culture. This is where politeness comes into play. Being polite so as to not be a burden on others – so as to not cause others more harm and stress – sustaining of self. The opposite is piling onto others in the hopes of lessening your own stress. You still have to carry your own problems so why give more to others.”- Sajata Epps

The practice of politeness that Sajata experienced in both Hong Kong and Taipei, played a critical role in how she approached her art practice while traveling. This cultural influence allowed her to feel comfortable sharing her artwork with strangers who would soon become friends. The emphasis on being polite and kind to others is exemplified in the smallest way––not killing the geckos, and the largest way––making Sajata feel welcomed.

While in Hong Kong, she had the opportunity to visit the Good Family Farm, a cooperative community that is dedicated to turning strangers into neighbors through the art of gardening. Very similar to the Kelly Street Collaborative, the Good Family Farm was born out of a passion for the land and its people. She even appeared in a short promotional video for the farm. Is it any wonder that Sajata found a sense of familiarity and belonging?

One of the most poignant experiences for Sajata, of which there were many, was while she was in conversation with a fellow indigo dye artist named Alice, Sajata began to talk about the stresses that come with making a living as an artist in New York. Alice,  was struck by how exacting Sajata’s life as an artist could be and in a moment of compassion and connection, Alice took down an indigo dye poster that she kept in her studio, and handed it to Sajata. This is a poster that Alice handmade as a reminder of what motivates her as an artist; the poster reads “Remember Why You Do This” in simplified Chinese.

Why does Sajata do this? Why does Sajata create and cultivate? Because she cares about her work and community. In her own words: “[I] Create for the sake of doing something I love but also [it’s] something people can benefit from.”

 

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