Building a Global Art Community

Yura Sapi cofounded the nonprofit LiberArte to support artists worldwide in efforts to end racial, social, and climate injustices

December 12, 2023 | Ting Yu

Article originally published on the BU College of Fine Arts Magazine.

Yura Sapi was 24 when they received a new name. 

Born Viviana Vargas Salvatierra to an Ecuadorian mother and a Colombian father, Sapi spent their childhood in Queens, N.Y., and the suburbs of Long Island. A creative child who fell in love with acting during public school and summer theater programs in New York, Sapi recognized from a young age that “the arts really were my home.” 

However, after studying theater at BU and earning an MFA in performing arts management from CUNY Brooklyn College, Sapi (’16) was confronted with the limited opportunities available to actors of color and those with a fluid gender identity. “I started seeing the American dream in a different way—almost as a lie, a story being told,” Sapi says. “The roles I loved the most were the ones I was a part of creating, writing, and producing. I wanted to be part of dismantling oppressive structures and making a change.”

They made a bold decision. In 2018, Sapi left New York for Ecuador. Three years later, they moved to Nuquí in Chocó, Colombia, to immerse themselves in a way of life that was both new and ancient—“rediscovering ancestral practices, a river you can swim in, and a more sustainable type of living,” they say. They visited Indigenous and Black communities and came to understand antiracism beyond a US perspective. Sapi also began learning Kichwa, their Indigenous language of Ecuador. During a ritual exercise with an elder, they received a new name: Yura Sapi. 

“In Kichwa, yura means tree or plant, and sapi means roots,” they explain. “It’s definitely an important part of who I am. I’m here on this earth to reconnect with and grow my roots and help others do the same.” 

To that end, Sapi cofounded a nonprofit that seeks to empower artists and “creative activists” around the world to help end racial, social, and climate injustice. The organization, LiberArte, supports primarily BIPOC, migrant, and LGBTQIA+ artists in the US and abroad through grants and an eclectic range of educational programming and arts initiatives. 

“I’ve always felt that art was activism,” says Sapi. “Artists are able to envision worlds that don’t exist. We see things and manifest them into existence. Whether it’s a play presenting another reality or a mural with a specific message, artists can change minds and change worlds. That’s what LiberArte is all about: liberation through the arts.”

The Power of the Arts

With book bans and censorship on the rise in the US, Sapi believes LiberArte’s work is more meaningful than ever. “People have always known the power of the arts, so there will always be resistance and fear of it,” they say. “We have to remember that they’re fearful of what we’re bringing to light—of showing a mirror—because it means that we’re doing something about it.”

From a sound studio in Nuquí, they host Building Our Own Tables, a podcast that amplifies the experiences and voices of global theater leaders of color. LiberArte’s Strategic Planning Institute offers in-person and virtual courses on equity, inclusion, and justice and is preparing to launch a yearlong fellowship to help artist-activists bring their community-driven endeavors to fruition. “It could be a theater collective, an art installation, a performance, or a community garden,” Sapi says. “We want to help them visualize and realize an idea that gives back to the community.” 

LiberArte’s community-driven, nature-inspired approach to nurturing artistic expression stems from Sapi’s personal journey. They’ve made a home in Nuquí, a remote municipality in the Chocó region of Colombia, nestled among pristine rivers, thermal springs, and waterfalls. “I love being able to connect with nature in such a deep way, where humanity isn’t dominating everything,” says Sapi, now a multimedia artist working in theater, film, photography, painting, and digital media. “Chocó is also predominantly Black and Indigenous, so I feel a common understanding with the people here in terms of my racial justice work and its intersection with social and climate justice.”

LiberArte launched Protectores de la Tierra [Earth Protectors], a food sovereignty project that engages local farmers and volunteers in cultivating more than 100 acres of Black-owned land to feed the residents of Nuquí and surrounding communities and to reduce reliance on imported processed foods. “We’re bringing back ancestral farming practices from a generation ago, when Nuquí exported things like rice, plantains, pineapple, and corn,” Sapi says. “It’s one of the rainiest places on Earth, so it’s incredible what can be grown here. In a place you can only reach by plane or boat, having our own food is so important.” 

 The project links organically with LiberArte’s Nuquí Artist Residency, which invites artist-activists abroad to work on the land while finding creative inspiration in the region’s striking natural beauty and community culture. The first artist-in-residence was Marcos Lopez Castro, a beats music producer from Queens, N.Y. LiberArte’s current artist-in-residence is Nuquí-based Tambacum, a traditional music ensemble featuring singers, drummers, and percussionists who came together in 2020 during the pandemic. Tambacum released their first record in 2021, and LiberArte is working on bringing the group to the US for an East Coast tour in 2024.

“Their music is ancestral and intergenerational,” Sapi says. “They’re teaching the young kids and learning from local elders. In this way, we are decolonizing how art is taught. It’s not only in academic institutions. There is so much wisdom and expertise that comes from these sabedoras y sabedores [wise bards] who learned through their ancestors.”

LiberArte and Tambacum have joined with community arts groups and businesses to revive the annual Festival del Tamborito, which is held in Nuquí, and celebrates Chocó’s vibrant cultural heritage through music, dance, storytelling, and artisan crafts. Sapi says international interest in the festival and other cultural events has boosted support and funding for education, food access, and local environmental issues. 

Sapi envisions LiberArte’s work activating artists in other countries across the Andean region, Central America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. “It’s so important for us to have this global community,” they say. “That’s where our power is. We’re able to see ourselves in each other, multiply everything we’re doing, and get inspired and empowered by our collective hope. Ultimately, we’re all together. Our water is all connected. We’re all artists, really, creating our lives.”

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