Follow These Feeds
Five women harnessing the power of Instagram to interrogate, inform, and inspire
Interviews by Olivia Aylmer
Esther Fan and Olivia Park (A.K.A. @sadasiangirls)
Olivia Aylmer: How did you two originally meet?
Sad Asian Girls Club: As graphic design students at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), we often bumped into each other at parties and in studio spaces. While taking the same graphic design studio class, we discovered countless similarities between ourselves regarding identity and the role social issues play in our lives.
OA: Why did you launch SAD ASIAN GIRLS CLUB? What was your goal when you first started?
SAGC: We launched SAD ASIAN GIRLS CLUB somewhat officially after seeing the response we received from our first YouTube video titled, “Have You Eaten?” Our initial goal wasn’t to make the video go viral at all, but it started to circulate and gradually gained a lot of online attention. The reaction from our Internet audience really encouraged us to continue this circulation of work related to the East Asian experience in Western environments.
OA: What are some of the most frustrating stereotypes you feel Asian-Western girls in particular face, and how do you work to deconstruct them via SAGC?
SAGC: Our installation “ASIAN WOMEN ARE NOT _____,” as well as the Model Minority Series, is a commentary on these exact issues of stereotypes and microaggressions. Super common ones include being asked “What kind of Asian we are,” or someone saying, “You’re not like all the other ones” or “You’re pretty dumb for an Asian.” The Western world has defined for itself what it means to be “Asian,” which usually takes form as an East Asian woman who is either submissive and extremely sexualized or is a ball-busting, desexualized nerd. It is our responsibility to dismantle these images.
OA: The collective technically just consists of the two of you—but since you launched SAGC, how has the community evolved and expanded beyond the Internet and into IRL territory? What are some of the most meaningful connections you have made with other girls through the project?
SAGC: The SAGC reputation and brand give us a huge opportunity to work with people and to be featured on forums with larger audiences. We find that people who resonate with our work feel empowered to do something or continue the conversations we address. Our work asks for awareness, and dialogue is the only way to make that happen. We have gained a steady following online and hopefully we can inspire other individuals to make similar work.
OA: What drew you to choose Instagram as one of the key social media platforms for SAGC?
SAGC: Our goal as graphic designers is to put context into content through visual language. We are all about the visuals to communicate our words. Instagram is a highly visual and fast-paced platform, so it makes sense as a tool for sharing our content. It’s also a way for us to meet our followers and audience. We get so excited when we see SAGC tagged in photos of our t-shirts, books, and work.
OA: What’s the significance and intention behind including “sad” in the name SAGC? What does the word mean to you in the context of your larger project, and has its meaning shifted at all since you started?
SAGC: Initially, as we described in our “MANIFESTO” video, we defined “sadness” as the frustrations that come with being raised in both Asian and Western cultures. We wanted to give agency to the word and show through our work that what matters is that something is being done to target that “sadness.”
Over time, however, we have come to realize that the word “sad” now comes with strong references to the specific Internet culture of the “sad boi” or “sad girl” aesthetic. While the inclusion of the word “sad” has helped us in some ways, one of our new goals for rebranding includes reaching out to an audience beyond that of the “Tumblr-esque.”
OA: What are your thoughts on the increased popularity of what some might term “Tumblr-friendly” feminism (often aided by savvy marketing)? Where do you feel your project fits within the current feminist moment and how do you feel it productively increases the visibility of identities that might not otherwise be heard, discussed, or seen?
SAGC: As mentioned above, we seem to have resonated among young women because of our Tumblr-friendly and pop cultural elements. More and more young people have begun to consider themselves “feminists,” which is good in theory because it implies that we are all on the same page. However, everyone comes from a different background; not all feminists have access to higher education or understand intersectionality, and there is always the issue of “white feminism.” Inevitably, the Internet is filled with clutter, and people tend to latch onto any online community that emphasizes opinions that match their own. As we’ve mentioned before, it is the consumer’s responsibility to be aware of what they consume.
As a duo, we feel responsible for what we make and how we communicate our ideas to our audience. We are creatives who use art and design to speak about our experiences. Our goal as feminist graphic designers is to communicate our messages clearly and effectively. We speak for ourselves and look forward to the responses of our valued viewers.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Kimberly Drew (A.K.A @museummammy)
Olivia Aylmer: Tell me about @museummammy and your Black Contemporary Art Tumblr. What prompted you to create each? What attracted you to these platforms in particular?
Kimberly Drew: I started Black Contemporary Art on Tumblr in 2011 as a means of recording the work of artists of African descent online. At the time, I was an undergraduate at Smith College studying Art History and African-American studies. Following an internship at The Studio Museum in Harlem, I created the blog to serve as an archive of some artists that I’d learned of while at the museum. I used Tumblr because, at the time, it was the premier website for creatives and for sharing images.
After college, I began using the username @museummammy to communicate about some of my own adventures in the art world. @museummammy gave me an opportunity to craft my own voice online and to record some of the people and places that I’ve encountered in my career. Creating Black Contemporary Art was sort of the beginning of my career and developing @museummammy has been a vehicle for crafting my own identity.
OA: What void on the Internet—and in the IRL art world—do you believe your accounts help to fill?
KD: It’d be overly egotistic to assume that my pages fill any voids. We all use the Internet and experience art in so many different ways. Instead of thinking about filling a void, I focus on sharing content that I hope can be relevant to my audiences. On one hand, I want to tell the world about as many black artists as I can, but at the same time, I might share a thread of Oprah’s iconic eyewear collection. I like to keep my feeds light, but insightful.
OA: What are some of the most meaningful connections you’ve made, particularly with other women, on the Internet and beyond since launching @museummammy and/or Black Contemporary Art Tumblr?
KD: Something like 70% of my most valued, precious relationships have all been fostered through the Internet in some capacity. But, I guess, my most recent and *peak Internet* connection has been with Jenna Wortham, a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Our friendship and our upcoming book project was birthed from a DM.
OA: How do you approach your work across the Metropolitan Museum of Art's social media platforms differently than you do with your personal accounts? In what ways do your goals for each intersect? And what do you hope prospective (and particularly first-time) visitors to the Met take away after gaining visual windows into its collections and exhibitions online?
KD: Well, quite simply, I’m a 26-year-old with a relatively “sassy” Internet presence, and The Met is one of the most prestigious museums in the world. That difference aside, I’m learning so much from managing The Met’s accounts. On social, it’s my job to uphold the museum’s goals of education and access. Our slogan “One Met. Many worlds.” is readily communicated through every Tweet, Facebook post, or Pinterest board. On a very base level, I’ve always hoped that my work as a Social Media Manager helps visitors to imagine themselves within the museum. I want to present the possibility of a museum experience and assure visitors that our collection reflects them and is here for them as visitors, researchers, or literally anything. Empowerment is the goal, always.
OA: Do you consider yourself a curator? How do you define that term and, in your view, what is its relationship to your practice of unearthing little-known artists of color?
KD: I am very uncomfortable with being defined by a profession. That aside, curation, from the Latin word “curare,” literally means to care for something. So, in many senses, I’m doing my best to be the best curator that I can be in every facet of my life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jade Farrar (A.K.A. @chineseschooldropout)
OA: What prompted you to create @chineseschooldropout?
JF: @chineseschooldropout really started as a passion project and as a way to stay connected to elements of Chinese history and Asian American studies that I had become obsessed with during my time at Barnard College. Through sharing pictures of forgotten Asian American performers and beautiful Hong Kong actresses donning exquisite qipaos, I have found a way to connect with others who have similar interests, and it’s given me another way to celebrate my Chinese background.
The main inspiration for the handle name was drawn from my own experience as a five-year-old girl who DESPISED going to Saturday Chinese school. A little backstory: growing up as a half-Chinese girl, I didn’t really know how to navigate being mixed. Most of my friends were white and we all thought it was SO UNCOOL to be Asian. Every Saturday morning I had to wake up early and trek all the way down to Mott Street, just to spend the next five hours in a room full of Chinese kids who looked at me like [I was] an alien and spoke a language I could not understand. I saw Chinese school as an obligation and I thought my inability to connect with the culture was because my mother chose to marry a white dude. I stopped going to Chinese school after a few months, and I spent most of my adolescence feeling unsure as to how to respond to the probing “What are you?” question. For a while, I adopted the response and label of “Chinese School Dropout.” It was cheeky, it alluded to my love of the movie Grease, and it felt like an appropriate description of my fragmented relationship to my mother’s culture.
Things seemed to radically shift for me once I came to Barnard and started to take classes that focused on early modern Chinese history and Asian American representation in the media. Through my coursework, I learned how the practice of Chinese footbinding basically brought down the Qing empire and of the modern girls in 1920’s Shanghai who permed their hair and resisted arranged marriages. I loved learning these hidden stories of women who had been pushed to the margins of the master narrative we often call history. As I learned more about Chinese feminism and the history of Asian American women’s public culture, I felt that I was finally equipped with the cultural knowledge and legitimacy to call myself a Chinese- American girl.
As my interests began to align with my cultural background, I chose to write my senior thesis exploring Chinatown nightclubs of the ‘40s and the brave Chinese- American women who performed in them. Through my research, I began to find the coolest images and ephemera of these showgirls; glamorous women like Jadin Wong and Noel Toy inspired me with their wit and style. I loved these women because growing up, I rarely had any Asian American beauty icons to look up to, and here were two women from the past, who were proud to be Chinese but also experienced their own struggles in navigating the hybrid identity of being Chinese American. I wanted to continue acknowledging and celebrating women like Jadin and Noel and to create a space to share their inspiring images and stories. Instagram seemed like the perfect answer since I spend a majority of my time on the app—and so @chineseschooldropout was born!
OA: What are some of the most interesting connections you’ve made with other women (on the Internet and beyond) since launching @chineseschooldropout?
JF: By posting and sharing the images that I do, I have been able to engage and connect with some amazing and creative Chinese-American women based in New York. I had been following burlesque performer @CalamityChang for a while on my personal account, but the moment I followed her from @ChineseSchoolDropout, she immediately followed me back (I only had three images up!), and I took it as a sign to reach out and interview her for my thesis. Since meeting her in early spring 2015, I have seen her perform a bunch of times, and even went to her annual Asian Burlesque Spectacular. Calamity is someone I find so inspiring, and I love how she plays with the objectifying orientalist gaze through burlesque. Her performances question why femininity, glamour, and being unapologetically Asian must be seen in opposition to legitimacy and capability. She is a total badass!
Another cool connection I have made is with the artist Ashley Yang-Thompson (@ashleythompsonart). I am so thankful to that Instagram explore algorithm for helping me discover Ashley, since she has become such a dear friend. I was so drawn to her vibrant paintings inspired by her grandmother and Chinese propaganda posters. She is also half Chinese, and a lot of her work beautifully expresses so many complicated things that I have thought or felt but never knew how to articulate.
And lastly, through some recent late-night Instagram lurking, I discovered @eatingpopos, run by writer/foodie/chef Diane Chang. Po-Po is Chinese for grandmother, and Chang shares stories and recipes—usually her take on traditional Chinese dishes—inspired by her Po-Po as a way to stay connected to her roots. She also bakes special gluten-free breads and delivers them all over the city; I just ordered a black sesame plum bread that I am very excited to try.
OA: Why did you decide to use Instagram as the platform for your project?
JF: I am someone who has become an image hoarder; I think it comes with the territory of being a millennial. Instagram seemed like the perfect platform to consolidate and organize all of the wonderful images I have collected. With Instagram especially, there is this emphasis on curation—the images you post and the accounts you follow are all highly curated. I have also found a unique freedom in keeping the account semi-anonymous; it has allowed me to feel a little less inhibited in reaching out to others.
A: What are some of the most frustrating stereotypes you encounter as a Chinese American girl? Has launching this Instagram allowed you to debunk some of them?
JF: I think being an Asian woman, it is hard to completely escape the legacy of sexualization and objectification. Speaking from my particular experience of being a mixed Chinese-American girl, people have called me exotic or assume that because I look a certain way, things come more easily for me. Yes, these are positive stereotypes, but they still are limiting and conflate my unique experience with a generic idea of my ethnicity. Being an Asian girl on the Internet often results in a whole other story and level of objectification (this is also why I have chosen to be anonymous and to not post many personal pictures). I’m sure that there are many other Instagram models and bloggers who use those stereotypes to their advantage, but there are also a lot out there who are using the platform to speak out against the objectification of Asian female bodies.
Through @ChineseSchoolDropout, I have discovered so many cool Asian female creatives who have such diverse talents and use Instagram as a way to share them. They are totally debunking the model minority stereotype that Asian women are nerdy and silent. These women are funny, make amazing things with their hands, and have crazy cool careers.
OA: What do you hope people take away from exploring your account? Any plans to expand beyond nstagram?
JF: I really hope that when people stumble across my account they are 1) delighted by the colorful curation of the images and 2) inspired by the histories and style of these really cool ladies.
I’m still working out the kinks, seeing which posts get really great engagement and which don’t—although my main goal is not about getting the most likes or follows. I think what is important to me is that people can relate and find a connection to what I post. In terms of the future, I would love to expand into more of a blog format, make some merch (t-shirts and patches y’all!), maybe do some podcast interviews with the cool ladies I have met—I have yet to find a podcast for and about Asian-American women livin’ life, finding love, and working on cool projects, so maybe I just have to create it myself!
Follow Jade on Instagram.
This interview has been condensed and edited. All photos courtesy of Jade Farrar.
Art Garments (@artgarments)
Olivia Aylmer: What prompted you to create Art Garments? Were you at all surprised by the strong interest and amount of followers it quickly garnered?
Art Garments: The amount of attention it's gotten is completely unexpected. I love that so many others are interested in looking at art every day, and that the details are as interesting to them as they are to me.
At first, I was interested in just taking a closer look [at the paintings], and the account was a kind of record of that. I focus on areas I never noticed before in familiar paintings—an earring, a fold [of fabric], a hair comb reflected in a mirror. They are details that the artist has included and seen, but that I hadn't noticed at the museum or in my books.
But I think that initially, what I was doing felt almost blasphemous: ignoring the whole in favor of the detail, chopping off pieces, reconfiguring and deconstructing. It made me wonder whether I was reducing the work or tainting it, whether I was tampering with the artistic canon. That tingle of fear is also why I've continued to post regularly.
At the same time that it feels taboo, the detail makes the work really fresh again. As a culture, we are saturated by images—there's art on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and pocketbooks. I think we sometimes stop seeing a work when it becomes too familiar.
[Curating Art Garments] is also a way to learn—there are so many works that I didn't know well, and that was and is still one of my driving forces. It’s been a way to learn about artists I didn't know and movements I wasn't familiar with, as well as a way to reconcile what I now realize was a very basic art education. I grew up going to museums all the time and yet, the artists I was most exposed to were the usual suspects: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Rembrandt. Creating Art Garments was a way to reconcile my own benighted arrogance about what I thought I knew about art.
It’s thrilling in different ways: seeing different trends in fashion, comparing changing notions of beauty, learning along the way. It's almost subversive to tamper with a "great work" and to make it available in such a quick and easy way—to take it out of the museum.
OA: Why did you decide to use Instagram as the platform for your project?
AG: At first the account was almost a kind of personal visual diary of artwork that interested me.
I like using hashtags to keep track of the paintings and the details that I highlight—thus creating a database of art details and images for comparison.
Cropping and magnifying feels almost taboo, as though I am tampering with the work. Technology is really great this way. It lets you do things that are indeed impossible in life—magnifying and rearranging and relocating and recreating. At museums, there's always a necessary remove, a disconnect between the text and the viewer—you can't touch anything or breathe too closely to it. There's none of that fear with technology; no vigilance.
I also find the Instagram community to be amazingly positive and encouraging. The comments each post receives are always enlightening and teach me something I didn't know or didn't see in a work. The Instagram community is really supportive and really savvy about the way it uses technology.
OA: What do you see as the larger goal of Art Garments? Any plans to take it offline and, say, into an IRL exhibition space at some point?
AG: I would love to expand Art Garments—we've started Artgarments.org, which includes the images, and hope to expand in the near future. I am so passionate about the work I do with Art Garments every day. I am fascinated by the intersection of art and technology, and the way it shakes up what we think we know about a text or the way we experience art. Curating an exhibition would be amazing.
OA: Do you have a favorite Art Garments image or two?
AG: I try not to live with the paintings for too long for fear that my sense of wonder will run out somehow. Encountering a detail for the first time is a thrill—like the tiny sparrow earring of the Countess of Arundel, or the incredibly chic gold lamé pants, or the oddity of the chiqueadores in Miguel Cabrera's "Doña Maria de la Luz Padilla y Cervantes."
OA: What do you hope people take away from exploring your account?
AG: I think the account is interesting from a historical point of view. The portraits often portray the most fashionable women and men of their time, while also sometimes capturing everyday people engaged in everyday work.
It is a revelation—all sorts of works from all sorts of institutions from around the world have become accessible in ways that I hadn't even imagined. The magnification is a viewer's wildest fantasy. It's a creator's dream: seeing brushstrokes and touches of white that from afar become earrings.
All photos courtesy of Art Garments. This interview has been condensed and edited.