By Eliza Rudalevige
In one of her most recent Instagram posts, Xixi Wang, BC ’22, beams before a black and yellow Times Square billboard; her impossibly clean white sneakers sparkle against the grubby bench on which she sits. This might not seem out of the ordinary unless you take into account that most Columbia students deem themselves too New-Yorkerly to venture into Times Square after freshman year. But that’s not the real peculiarity here: Wang designed this billboard herself.
In the post’s second slide, Wang, an Art History and Visual Arts major, laughs from her perch atop the back of her coworker and friend, Sophie Beren. Beren also happens to be the founder/CEO of The Conversationalist, the organization whose new “Gen Z Talk Show” Wang’s billboard advertises. When we spoke over Zoom, Wang told me that she began working mid-pandemic for The Conversationalist, which markets itself as a platform for Gen Z to break open their social echo chambers and talk about issues like vaccine mandates and body positivity in a more open and multilateral way. The Conversationalist’s social media pages welcome opinions on these issues, even those that could be categorized as notoriously divisive “hot takes,” which they call “POVz.” For example, one post styled like a peek into a text exchange offers up the POV, “No one is intentionally killing anyone by not getting the vaccine” for discussion.
As we chatted, it was obvious that Wang looks up to Beren. She told me that her work with The Conversationalist inspired her to start her own community platform to openly practice a sex-positive outlook and start a project that focuses on deconstructing issues such as fetishization and sexual shame that Wang felt were especially relevant to Asian communities. She launched Asians for Sex Positivity this past June with a team of six, including two fellow Barnard students—Elle Ferguson, BC ’23, AFSP’s copywriter, and Shubham Saharan, BC ’22, their social media strategist.
Wang pinpointed a conversation with her parents on a visit back in January as the moment that inspired her to create AFSP. “It was the first time we really talked about dating and sex,” she told me. “I was in my junior year where I told them about my first serious relationship, and they were like, ‘Oh, maybe we should actually breach this topic with our daughter.’ Then, my mom started talking about why she never felt comfortable talking about sex with me, how she wasn’t really educated on the subject matter and felt awkward talking about it and just didn’t have the resources to do so.”
Wang later explained, “Especially in AAPI communities, sex really is shoved under the rug and never talked about, but mainly because parents don’t have the resources to talk about sex. They don’t know how to talk about it in an educational way.” AFSP attempts to provide these resources for anyone interested in using them, ranging from an infographic on the pivotal role of sex workers in the Stonewall riots, to thoughtful explanations of the hypersexualization of Asian women in the media, to a quick guide on how to navigate an interracial relationship.
Asians for Sex Positivity is undoubtedly a very new platform, and Wang says that she doesn’t want to prioritize rapid growth over creating a space where people feel safe. When I asked what her ideal future for AFSP looks like, she responded that she would love for it to become a big community, perhaps expanding to include a Facebook group and Q&A sessions. Currently, AFSP has partnerships lined up with Talk Back and Catcalls of NYC, and Wang also wants to partner with AAPI sex educators, though her research has yielded a dearth of candidates.
But Wang and the rest of the AFSP team, all of whom live very busy lives, don’t have significant concerns about the future of the organization: “Right now I’m kind of keeping it on the down-low. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on it right now since I’m doing a million things and also at school ... I don’t want to worry too much about future plans, but I do have big visions for it.” What those visions manifest to be, only time will tell.
Although most of her artistic tasks with AFSP and The Conversationalist involve graphic design, Wang’s creative origins are considerably more varied. Like many artists, she began drawing as a youngster and added painting to her repertoire in college. Initially, graphic design was something her high school classmates foisted upon her, as The Artist of her year: “Whenever someone needed a poster for some club or a poster for a performance, they’d be like, ‘Xixi, can you make this?’ assuming that just because I knew how to draw, I knew how to design.”
Soon, however, Wang figured out that digital art had vast potential. “At first, I would draw all of my designs, but then I realized that, Wow, there’s this whole digital world out there,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve never taken a graphic design class—it’s all been self-taught. I can’t really use Photoshop to save my life, so a lot of my graphic design work is on Canva.”
Wang noted that graphic design combines her interests in art with social media. She began her art career on Instagram at age twelve, posting penciled celebrity portraits and Disney-inspired doodles. Wang still posts her art on Instagram; you can watch her style and subject matter metamorphose as you scroll back through her feed (@xixiwangartist, for those interested). In contrast to the pop-culture pictures of her younger years, Wang now prefers to share sophisticated paintings and sketches exploring intimacy, self-love, and sexuality. Her last complete series featured disembodied hands clutching various sex toys, rendered in ethereal colors, at once lifelike and otherworldly.
Although the pandemic took a toll on her motivation to paint, Wang has no plans to take a permanent break. She told me about a new series that she’s working on at a leisurely pace: “I asked people to send me pictures of their breasts and talk about their relationship with their breasts and body image.” She plans to enliven these images and ideas on the canvas. “I’m so grateful to the people that sent me those images and I want to create work that I’m really proud of, especially when it comes to stories of other people, images of other people who were vulnerable enough to share that side of themselves.”
Vulnerability seems to come easily to Wang—or, perhaps, she’s worked hard to make it that way. She shares the emotions and processes behind both her intimate paintings and her newborn organization without hesitation. But when I asked about the connection between the two, she paused before answering. “I think my passion for art and talking about sexuality and self-love definitely influenced the start of AFSP,” she said, “but I will admit that still, to this day, a lot of my paintings don’t really deal with my identity as an Asian-American person.”
“I’ve always felt like my paintings dealt with my identity [and] my queerness and less so with my Asian-ness. But as I’ve now started AFSP, I think I’ve stepped into a part of my life where I’m more so embracing my identity as an Asian-American person.” Wang smiled as she delivered one last line. “At the start, my work definitely inspired AFSP, and now AFSP is inspiring my art.”