Portrait of an Assimilitarist


| October 25, 2002

Portrait of an Assimilitarist

From giggling schoolgirl to scantily clad exotic dancer, from bleached-blond Midwesterner to hip-hop groupie, Nikki S. Lee has 'been' all of these people -- and she's got the pictures to prove it. The Korean-born Lee has made a career and an art form out of transformation, studying particular subcultures and then using makeup and clothing to seamlessly 'become' part of each group, documenting the experiences through snapshots taken by friends and bystanders.

Though Lee insists that her work is not about race (she refused to be interviewed or allow her pictures in this ColorLines article) author Chisun Lee can't help but look at her work through a racially tinted lens. Lee's art has been embraced by mainstream museums and art reviewers who have called her transformations 'astounding' and 'uncanny.' Chisun Lee believes that her work has been defined by this frame of reference, and by the mainstream's voyeuristic fascination with Lee's ability to blend into subcultures it may find bizarre or threatening.

Despite widespread awe at her ability to blend in, Nikki Lee remains an outsider in the subcultures she imitates, Chisun Lee writes, and it is clear that despite her overalls and bleached mullet, the artist doesn't really belong in the living room where a confederate flag still hangs sporting the sign 'I ain't coming down.' The author doesn't see Lee in her Hispanic Project as just one of the girls, but rather 'the point of comparison, so that unfamiliar viewers can look at the rest of the group and say, 'A ha, those are the real Latinas.'
--Erica Sagrans
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