INTERVIEW: MYLES E. JOHNSON | ART: DONTE NEAL

The weight of feeling you have to be the representation of an entire group is something most marginalized people can relate to. It influences how you speak, how you move your body, and the gaze is constantly there. You can feel eyes, imagined or real, on your back with every move you make. The more invisibility and othering a group faces, the more you feel the need to be outstanding and speak to everything and all things. This is a trick of domination. It is a type of silencing because it forces the marginalized person to not say or do anything that might be interpreted as a bad representation for their whole group. There is freedom in diversity. The ability to be good, bad, happy, and sad in public is what turns a group of any given marginalized people into identities.


I remembered this while chatting with Esther and Olivia, the people behind the creative collective Sad Asian Girls. I thought about my gaze and how I hoped that I didn’t do anything to objectify or push either person to be ambassadors of a group when they are just two creative people that belong to a group that white supremacy has rendered invisible; not actually invisible people. And in that moment, I had a unique empathetic moment about how people must gaze me and my work, even when well-intentioned. You can see cis-heterosexual people and non-black people trying not to treat me like an exotic thing they found. I’ve always been here. You’re just now seeing me for whatever reason.


I held this close to my chest when consuming Sad Asian Girls’ work. Here is this whole developed, creative world filled with beautiful aesthetics, politics, and concepts that I would never be able to experience if it were not for the internet, and it is my responsibility to interact, not oversimplify and exploit. In that commitment, I found what one usually finds while practicing grace; the thread that connects us all. It is cliche, but we truly do have more in common than we do have differences. It feels good to know that some things transcend identity and culture, like humanity, and even sadness. Here is a chat with Esther and Olivia of Sad Asian Girls talking about their identity, creative process, and how they exist for the latest installment of #MyActivism.

– Myles Johnson, Editor

How did this collective begin?

ESTHER: We started after uploading our first video “Have You Eaten?” which was made when we were both struggling with our personal relationships with our immigrant East-Asian moms; the video began to circulate and we gained an audience that was rather small, but it was enough to motivate us to continue working together to make work that people like us could also resonate with.

OLIVIA: I think the timing of this collective is important too. We started this when both of us were hurt and angry. I was cut off by my mother at the time for a few months and on top of that, it was a moment where I started to unpack my position in the world. Luckily, Esther and I were in a few classes together, where our conversations naturally led us to collaborative projects under the name Sad Asian Girls, originally Sad Asian Girls Club.

 

In all areas, including but not limited to art and activism, what do you think this collective brings to the conversation?

OLIVIA: If anything, it’s brought into light how many femmes around the world needed a collective or platform to talk about things related to the “Sad + Asian” conversation. Esther started a Facebook group which is currently called “Sad & Asian.” Originally, it was intended to be a space to talk about Asian + art related topics but now is more of a general space for anything related to “Sad + Asian.” Much of the reason why we continued to make work under the SAG name was so that other like-minded East Asian femmes wouldn’t feel alone. We wanted to share our stories and thoughts, which could become a starting point of a conversation.

ESTHER:  To be honest, when I look back at our work, I don’t know how much we’ve REALLY contributed to the conversation besides maybe adding to the numbers of a quickly growing Asian-American activist community that often is still East-Asian centered and also often inspired (or in some cases, blatantly copied) by black/brown movements. A lot of our work was created when we ourselves were just starting to learn about “Asian American” social issues and we ended up making a lot of Activism 101 projects and fell into the tendency to center ourselves as East Asians.

We have a lot of work to do and the Asian community is not completely united due to colorism and privilege/power dynamic issues between East Asians and other Asians, on top of our anti-blackness in general. I think by the time this was made known to us by other Asian activists who aren’t allowed as much visibility as we were, we had already stopped making projects and were beginning to focus on our personal studies.

I want to think that the group I’m running, “Sad & Asian,” is where I can do better for those who were excluded in the work we did in SAG. I think it’s productive to have created a community where we can have these discussions in the first place and gradually begin to restructure ourselves; it shows that we’re beginning to get involved in socio-political discourses and are recognizing where we fit into them when previously we’d been believed to be indifferent. It’s exciting to see Asian folks from all educational and cultural backgrounds or fields/disciplines being interested in activism/social justice.

Additionally, I think being graphic designers/artists is just a more specific area we’re working with; the art world (like most “worlds”) has always been dominated by cishet white male narratives and we’re beginning to assert ourselves there too.

 

Screen+Shot+2016-04-16+at+1.52.06+PM.png
Asian Women Are Not, a public installation.

 

Design is a space where it is not always easy to resist. How do you find spaces to resist in your artistic practice?

OLIVIA: We’ve learned that you’ve just got do it and fight for that space if it can exist. Though, I can’t imagine fighting without finding support. It’s incredibly important to think: Who are the few people in positions of power that will back you up? Who are the colleagues that understand the depth and importance of your work? What are the references that you pull up in order for people, who might not understand your work, to “get it?”

ESTHER: Now that I think about it —I can’t say much for the real design world since we’re still students—but so far in art school I’ve found that we hold some privilege, in that our work seems to have been more about creating content that Asians could resonate with, and not so much tapping into white guilt or anything else that really threatens whiteness. Our professors continue to give us design-related advice and are able to dodge the subject of our content relatively easily, as opposed to black/brown artists at our school who are unable to gain any type of productive critique or support. We got a lot of media attention last year and various other achievements that I think happened only because our aesthetic is easily consumed or accessible by pop media, with the whole “sad girls” thing. In the beginning, we figured it was because we’d figured out what attracts attention and we’ve made really inspiring work, which is maybe true but I feel like we got by more importantly because we’re a couple of artsy conventionally attractive East Asian girls/femmes.

This is an impossible question to truly answer, but growing up, how did the lack of Asian representation affect you most?

ESTHER: This has also been a strange question for me; I grew up in a city that was predominantly Chinese/Taiwanese, and so I never thought about the issue of race or even our relationship to whiteness because everywhere I went, I saw someone who looked like me on the streets and in our media, save for some American TV that I was never really culturally attached to. I think more specifically, I probably needed more queer Asian representation as well as more Asians not caught between imitating whiteness or appropriating blackness; growing up it was cool to be either whitewashed or be/act international (or like a “fob”) I was interested in neither because I never felt either one really fit into who I was.

OLIVIA: For me, childhood was all about cherishing Korean celebrities and actors with Korean family friends that my immigrant parents chose for me. None of these celebs were US-based so I bought imported CDs from Korean pharmacies and stationery stores. Late middle school and all of high school was about throwing away my Korean cultural background and idolizing white figures that I may not even necessarily like that much. I did this because there weren’t any Asian women on media that I thought were really cool and exquisite. The media told me that Asian women were either ugly nerds who kept silent or sex objects. This made me want to be white so bad. At one point, I tried to perform this “white-washed Asian” persona, which was basically denying my Korean culture while living in my yellow skin. I felt this great displacement which has become such a big part of my life. To this day I’m finding myself trying to unpack my bias and sometimes self-hate. Representation is important. We need Asians of all shades, sizes, genders, sexualities, and personalities in media. The two stereotypes that still exist today are literally so gross and outdated.

It is a trying time with the current political climate, how do you care for yourself and others you work with?

OLIVIA: I love my sister with all my heart. Whenever we’re feeling down, we ask for company and support. Usually, this means eating good food and doing homework together. Besides that, I’m also constantly working on projects involving collaboration. Collaboration is not only a way for me to be productive with messages that I deeply care about but it’s really an excuse for me to work with people that I love and respect so much. My collaborators are the strongest, coolest, and most inspirational folks I know. I really feed off their positive energy and I try my best to give that kind of support back to them. Collaboration is a meaningful process for me. It is my way of existing as a friend and creative simultaneously.

ESTHER: The only person I love and care about in this world is my boyfriend and we continue to learn/grow from each other and have found a comfort in each other that we have never had from anyone else; he’s a cis black man and I’m a queer E-Asian nb femme and while we both deal with mental health problems on top of the specific issues that come with our identities, we care for each other and keep each other alive, and he makes my life a little more worth living.

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NOW MORE THAN EVER: PUT ASIAN FEMMES IN WHITE CUBES, performance piece.

Collaboration is hard as an artist. What are ways you make the process better?

OLIVIA: Our whole work process revolves around two main types of collaboration. The first collaboration is between Esther and me and the other involves us and our audience. One example out of many improvements we have made is time management. We used to spend long hours working together in physical spaces, which was good for bonding and getting familiar with each other. However, over time, we’ve gotten better at working shorter hours with high efficiency. The moment we start to slow down, we close our laptops and arrange for another day when we can be highly productive. A good collaboration requires patience, flexibility, and honor to your collaborator’s time.

ESTHER: Like all relationships, communication is crucial, not only between Olivia and I but also over time we’ve learned the importance of transparency between us and our followers/audience. We had a lot of flaws when we first started SAG and we didn’t know how to talk about or acknowledge them; SAG took off really fast after we got our first bit of media attention and we weren’t at all ready to think about how to present ourselves to an audience. Eventually, one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is emphasizing precision in language and again, transparency and responsibility for mistakes; this way, we give room for improvement and allow for reconstructing ourselves.

Who is on your mind, besides a client, when you are making something. Who are you creating for?

OLIVIA: I make things while thinking about someone who has felt alone and can ultimately feel solidarity with other sad + Asian femmes in the world.

ESTHER: I wish I had a more romantic response than simply, myself. While in the moment of working I am my own critic and often my own greatest hater. I think if I were to actively think about making work for real impact for other marginalized people I’d be at a loss and feel completely inept (after all, what difference could I, of all people, make to dismantle white supremacy?) and it would probably just lead to a lot of self-hate and disappointment. During the processes for our SAG projects, I never thought about how big of an impact we could make. I just wanted our projects to feel complete and make sense to me and what I think our audience needs, and for the most part, they have. This might just be me being my own hater again; I’m always going to think we could probably do better or we’re never doing enough for other marginalized bodies.

We all have our own meanings of words. Define activism.

OLIVIA: Activism is when you are actively fighting for positivity in everyday life.

ESTHER: I think it’s actively deciding to make changes in your life first, then working towards making changes in others’ lives simultaneously (you can never really stop learning) no matter how big or small the actions are, so long as they’re genuine and not performative. Activism (& solidarity) is also humility.

Fill in the blank. The struggle _____.

ESTHER: is not a competition nor a spectacle

OLIVIA: is a shared experience that is not limited to just our own.

What did you do today to resist?

OLIVIA: I reminded myself that in order to resist meaningfully, taking care of myself cannot be optional. It is required.

ESTHER: I continued to live, and I finished the first phase of my project on Chinese-American queerness and assimilation.

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