The Asian Cultural Council has long supported both the international exchange of artists, as well as the exchange of ideas. While global travel is on pause,  the critical need for dialogue across international divides remains. In response, ACC has transitioned its public programs online in a series that gathers leading artists, scholars, and arts professionals in conversation across Asia and the United States.

On June 26, ACC New York hosted its first virtual dialogue with alumni SAJATA-E (Sajata Epps) and Fredie Chan on the role of the artist in community.

Both SAJATA-E and Fredie Chan are artists whose work engages deeply with their physical and social environments. Sajata is a South Bronx-based sustainable designer, textile artist, and community farmer educating in smaller design footprints and farming rights in New York City. She received an ACC Fellowship in 2018, traveling to Hong Kong and Taiwan to engage with artists, urban farmers, and community members around sustainable art practices. In Hong Kong, she met Fredie, an award-winning independent filmmaker, whose films focus on grassroots' communities and social activism. He later received an ACC Fellowship to explore documentary filmmaking and participate in community-centered film programs in the United States. Sajata, in turn, showed him the ropes in New York City, helping navigate the balancing act between expectations and reality.

“The longer I lived in New York, the more patient I realized I needed to be,” Fredie said, “I lived in upper Manhattan in West Harlem, and Sajata lived in the Bronx. Both boroughs were facing gentrification issues...I thought it was a global issue, gentrification, and that if some of my films showed the same concern, naturally they would welcome me and get me involved in the community to do teaching and further collaboration. But of course, the story went a little differently...Community art is always a process of building trust first.”

Community art, he continued, involves working with people, and by extension navigating social dynamics and stereotypes. “I grew up in a city with a population that's 90% Chinese, and obviously I’m one of the majority, but New York’s demographic is so different and diversified,” Fredie said and underscored the need to understand preexisting stereotypes, clarify racial misconceptions, and work across cultural difference.

“We talked a lot about cultural difference...and why culturally it would be a shock for you to come to America,” Sajata explained, “It’s very hard to envision that you would come against so many different views when you go to a multi-diverse community like New York. New York is basically five cities condensed into one city. America is not a super old country. It’s relatively developed, and how it was developed was f-ed up. How America was built was f-ed up, and this is something that is very true.”

In “Why It’s Hard to Be an African American in Craft,” Sajata delves into America’s history of craft and racial injustice. “It wasn’t until I dug deep into my own American history,” she wrote, “that I truly understood why my knitting needles struck more fear into the hearts of people than watching Kaepernick take a knee.” Looking at her role in the present, Sajata says, “I don’t think it is my role to be the face of Black Lives Matter or to be the face of even the pandemic movement in America. I am more beneficial as being an example...We live and breathe by example...My role as an artist is to work and be an example for what I believe in and what my community believes in.”

And there’s the question: what do communities believe in? Do they view artists as essential?

“The truth of the matter,” Sajata replied, “is that I was categorized as essential. I have a design background. So, when everything shut down…[and with so much of our essential equipment created in China], our country debated whether they would enact a law to use spaces like my studio to create clothing and personal protective equipment. We had to shift into being ‘essential workers’ whether we wanted to or not.”

The essentiality of arts, however, goes beyond production to something much deeper, intangible, and universal. “Art is essential emotionally,” Sajata said, “People were looking for a break from the pandemic and racial injustice. We couldn’t escape, it was all over TV.” Artists have taken the role of processing, engaging, and interpreting this moment, as well as providing spaces of reprieve. From a videographer’s perspective, Fredie noted, art is a form of therapy. “Throughout any crisis, people are usually depressed or suppressing their emotions. During COVID-19, people can’t go out and they lack social connection.” In response, he said, there has been an influx of thought-provoking video diaries on YouTube expressing the psychological pressures related to both the pandemic and political unrest.

Art refracts the world around us, and is a portal to understanding across cultures. Artists serve as universal communicators across our fractured globe, interpreters of history during this unprecedented moment, and innovators envisioning and designing a better future. Artists and their role in community is not simply important, it is essential.