Portrait of an Assimilitarist

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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