How dare she? At first glance Korean American artist Nikki S. Lee may come off as a mockery. She explores the subject of identity through photography. In her seminal series titled “Projects,” you see her disguised as a member of a number of American sub-cultures and social identities: senior citizen, Korean school girl, swing dancer, lesbian, exotic dancer, and a skate boarder, amongst many others. Above you see her as a Latina woman. I was slightly offended when I saw her portraying a black woman with corn rows chillin’ wit da homies, or squeezed between her two home girls with a face full of exaggerated makeup. I questioned whether or not she was just posing for fun, or if there was a deeper meaning. To understand her better, I watched a short clip where she, in her native Korean language, talked about her artwork. She talked about how everyone has layers to their personality and how a closer examination reveals even more layers. “The work I do always needs to involve others, and that’s mainly because of my views about my own identity. I realized I could not understand who I am without the people around me. I believe that it is only through my relationships with others that I can see myself. The people around me allow me to fully express myself,” says Lee as she explains her methodology.
After getting over the shock of her doppelgängers, I thought a little more critically about her work. Through her art she is able to reveal the complexity of American culture. For each project she studied her subjects, by practicing and performing the codes and visual signs she observed. For the exotic dancer project she hired a personal trainer so that her body would better resemble that of a dancer. She connected with groups of people that may not have interacted with her in her everyday life. Perhaps her art was an exploration of finding her place within American society, as a member, as an artist, as a Korean. Her work allows the viewer much room for interpretation.
Thankfully she produced her art during a time in American history where racism and blatant prejudice wasn’t so blatant. Her methodology reminded me of a book I read in high school titled “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. John Howard Griffin both the author and main character of the novel, was a resident of Mansfield Texas in 1959. Wanting to understand the black experience, he medically altered his skin color by exposing his skin to ultra violet and used makeup for the areas that did not take to the medication. He traveled all around the South, engrossed in the racial injustice of the South, both as a pseudo black man and in his white skin. After his travels, he returned to his original color with the conclusion that blacks and whites do not understand each other. He wrote an article, that was subsequently published in 1960, about his undertaking of black skin. Though Griffin received world-wide acclaim, his hometown in Texas rejected his work. Threats to him and his family were so severe, that he and his family to moved to Mexico.
Identity, empathy, experience,and walking in someone else’s shoes are all things we wonder about. But what is the best way to acquire this knowledge? Can we be upset with the work of Nikki S. Lee and the decisions of John Howard Griffin? Or do we celebrate their pursuit into their unknowns? Progressive Pupil is a start! Engage in conversations with others about their walk, take cultural courses at your school, join a local community group, and ask questions. Do not allow ignorance or stereotypes frame your ideas about people that you know nothing about.
by LaKeisha Jefferson
Photo Credit – The Hispanic Project (25), 1998