A Eulogy to Artist Project Sad Asian Girls Club: Esther Fan and Olivia Park
by Evi Pineschi
Images courtesy Olivia Park and Esther Fan
Here lies Sad Asian Girls: a collaborative project by Olivia Park and Esther Fan that tackled sexism in the arts, intergenerational differences, institutional racism, and so much more. From installing posters that refuted and critiqued Asian stereotypes in the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, to protesting the lack of female representation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Sad Asian Girls was a contemporary exercise in DIY art-making in a similar vein to feminist predecessors, the Guerilla Girls. In just a few short years, SAG was conceived, mobilized, and terminated, but nevertheless their work continues to resonate with many who shared these experiences of East Asian identity in America and felt that this collective gave them a voice.
At the same time, SAG was problematic for other reasons. The collective struggled to achieve the level of inclusivity that its founders set out with the intentions of providing—SAG had difficulty creating a space for other people of color to interact with its practice and movement. Eventually, the project reached a point of expiration; the privilege and East Asian exclusivity inherent in SAG became irreconcilable with the ideals that Park and Fan had set out to uphold. Upon graduation from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the pair parted ways.
Gone but not forgotten, SAG’s triumphs and failures contain important lessons for young artists today. Now, Park has just closed a new show at Junior High in Los Angeles, while Fan continues to pursue her work in New York. With time and fresh perspectives separating them from their work together, the original Sad Asian Girls spoke with us separately and candidly about their experiences, both good and bad, as well as the lessons they learned—all to give one final goodbye to SAG.
Have You Eaten, 2015
Esther Fan and Olivia Park
An examination of the overlapping concepts of food as a symbol of nurturing in Asian families, as well as an open invitation for parents to comment on their children’s supposed flaws.
DRØME: How did you both meet, and what was the catalyst for forming SAG? Did your relationship set the initial tone for SAG from the get-go, or was it a gradual process?
Olivia Park: Esther and I met at RISD through a friend. It’s a rather small school and Esther and I were both part of the graphic design program. The work of SAG was initiated by conversation and taking the same courses. Esther met me at a time when my mom threatened to cut me off and refused to support me financially due to difference in morals and beliefs. The issue was clearly a generational gap. After much conversation and opening up, we were encouraged to make more work. It felt rewarding and cathartic at the time. While working with SAG, I kept telling myself that the work was a way to be proactive because I valued action. But looking back, I think I was also looking for someone to listen to me. I wanted other folks to tell me they felt the same way and that they heard the same things that I did. It was comforting and I felt empowered by their support. At one point, we felt as though we were done complaining about everything we had to complain about. Esther mentioned that there seemed to be other issues beyond the East Asian woman’s life that needed priority.
Esther Fan: We met in a programming class where we made our first project together, which was a game that allowed players to use their mouse like a paintbrush, and the brush options were four different headshots of Rachel Dolezal at different times in her farce. You could probably say that the feeling that we were being simultaneously edgy and progressive while not necessarily being actually productive sort of set the initial tone for SAGC.
Asian Women Are Not ___, 2015
“A public installation of posters containing statements submitted by the online public, to which we gave the prompt to fill in the blank: ‘Asian Women Are Not ___.’ A total of 100 submissions were taken (repetitive submissions counted as one).” — sadcontent.com
DRØME: What were the original goals of SAG? How have those goals changed and evolved?
OP: Our professors always asked us, “What is Sad Asian Girls Club? What is the goal?” I always thought I knew but I don’t think we really did. We would rewrite mission statements and goals, but they would evolve week after week. SAG took a life of its own and we went wherever it took us. I think the constant evolution is the nature of anything hosted on the internet. SAG’s home was the internet.
EF: Our implied goal was always to provide a platform for a variety of Asian American identities, which we didn’t really end up doing at all, and might have even done the opposite. Our platform served mainly ourselves and other East Asians, and in hindsight even when we attempted to rectify this by changing the wording of our mission statement/bios, or inviting more people to participate in our later projects, these attempts for more inclusion were really just attempts to pass tokenism as inclusion.
Model Minority Series, June 2016
Esther Fan and Olivia Park
A dialogue pertaining to the concept of the “Model Minority,” and how stereotypes, positive or not, still manifest negative side-effects in the groups they reference.
DRØME: What do you think is SAG's best/biggest accomplishment? What are you most proud of?
OP: To me, the SAG attitude that Esther and I were able to communicate is the biggest accomplishment. There are a few East Asian femmes/girls out there who really resonated with the message of SAG. We were people who were aware of our role as East Asians in this white world. We all faced issues that we were sad or pissed off about. The SAG visual language was also borrowed from the Internet, so repeating our treatments wasn’t a challenge. Anyone with a computer or phone can find a sans serif typeface and use the colors red, white, and black. Anyone with a computer or phone can add a frown face. I’m glad that these elements were engaging and consumable for our audience.
EF: Considering that our accomplishments were mainly monetary and social capital gain that only increased our East Asian privilege and palatability to a white gaze, at this point what I’m most proud of is the decision to stop working together after realizing no amount of reflection we were doing at the time could really justify our existence as just another East Asian art collective taking up space in Asian American activism that struggled to take accountability or even properly acknowledge the anti-blackness or non-East Asian exclusion in our work. Deciding to quit SAG altogether allowed me to properly reconsider and reconstruct my role and actions in any future endeavors in social justice work, and hopefully this is the case for Olivia as well
DRØME: What did you find most rewarding about doing this project? Were there any surprising, funny, or heartfelt moments that you weren't expecting?
OP: Finding people who genuinely appreciated and supported the work of SAG. I had so many internet crushes and too many of them showed the most solidarity. For example, I met Shydeia Caldwell, the founder of Black Girl Magik, who I am currently collaborating with in LA. We are doing a show called “HERE” at Junior High. The show is all about honoring and preserving our cultures that we were not able to fully celebrate in our past due to the diaspora, western-hierarchy, and self-hate derived from shame. Through SAG, I was also able to connect with people from my past and revive friendships. I am also thankful for Esther, who gave me the most support a partner could offer while working on SAG, and taught me so much in ways that I did not realize until after SAG. She’s a 10/10 multimedia artist who will do really amazing things. Keep your eyes peeled, people.
Now More Than Ever: Put Asian Femmes In White Cubes, January 2017
New York, NY
“ 'Now More Than Ever: Put Asian Women in White Cubes' is a two part performance piece concerning the lack of presentation of Asian femmes. Part 1 was performed through our t-shirts and Part 2 was consisted of a “drop” of postcards, cards, and buttons inside the MoMA retail spaces. Participants were volunteers including Mae, Eden, Ashley, Esther, and Olivia.” —sadcontent.com
DRØME: What has SAG set out to accomplish and has it accomplished that?
OP: People have described SAG as a brand, movement, collective, attitude, and subculture. Esther and I were so confused that we called SAG a “duo” at one point. To this day, I feel most confident in calling it an alias that we used to make work about the East-Asian Femme/Girl living in Western environments. We weren’t really setting out to accomplish anything grandiose and I don’t think we have to be honest. For me, SAG marks a time when I was in art school, realized that racism exists, had the luxury of spending time researching about East Asians in America and the financial privilege of making multimedia art about my identity for a bachelor's degree. There wasn’t anything quite like it being done on the internet with the quick and bold design-language that we had been using. It was only during and after Esther and I created SAG that we found out about groups like BUFU, Yellow Jackets Collective, the White Pube, and Angry Asian Girls.
Presents + Presence, 2017
New Haven, CT
SAG's zine submission for the Yale Odds and Ends Book Fair, which we also sold as merch to followers. Each box contained: one 'WOW!! You have 1 Asian Friend’ ribbon, three Asian designer logo temporary tattoos, one Trump China lighter, one White Male Tears button, two Asian protest stickers, one small photo book in which white female models' eyes are replaced with those of East Asians
DRØME: How do you define the legacy of SAG? How will you be carrying on this legacy in the work that you're both doing from this point forward?
OP: The legacy of SAG continues to move in my daily life and it also navigates through social media. I occasionally see folks repping their SAG/SAF gear and people are always reaching out on social media about SAG. I think I am always growing. In the beginning of SAG, I didn’t know much about identity politics and social justice. To be blatant, I was ignorant. I think this mentality of being socially/racially aware is unavoidable once you get into it. Esther and I both just graduated a few months ago from art school. I recently ended an internship at a predominantly white male corporate company. Existing outside of a life where race was talked about everyday was a little disorienting. I had forgotten that the world doesn’t talk about race on a daily basis, despite the media making it seem like [race] is the hot topic of America. East Asians are still largely complacent and do not have to think about race on a daily basis. If we are able to not engage in these conversations, that is evidence of our innate privilege which years and years of assimilation and class privilege has earned us. There is so much more work to be done. In my personal life too, I have always ignored conversations with my parents. I have publicly announced that they were too different to educate and convince. Hypocritically, I was encouraging white kids to go back to their homes and have conversations with their pro-Trump parents. All-in-all, SAG taught me that constant unpacking is necessary to progress as a culture and generation. As a creative, design, researching, and planning are skills I want to continue contributing long-term within a community I will eventually settle in.
EF: The errors we made in SAG will always linger in my mind and help me stay humble and critical; I currently run an online community named Sad & Asian with a group of admins, which I’ve mentioned before is my attempt to make up for what we didn’t do for other PoC and queer or trans Asians while in SAG. I also remain critical of similar platforms as SAG and I know that before I start any more projects I should spend more time thinking about decentering whiteness, appeals to whiteness, and exploiting narratives that don’t belong to me, and require the same of any future partners I might have.
Rest in power, Sad Asian Girls. Esther and Olivia’s work can be found on their websites www.efan.website and www.oliviapark.net as well as on Instagram: @efan1014 and @theoliviapark.