Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects”—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in “Art”

It’s the end of AAPI month so I suppose this is the perfect time to critique Nikki S. Lee.

I’ve been avoiding writing about Lee. I am incredibly over the position of discussing things I find to be deeply deeply racist, hurtful, and at the same time: basic. I want to spend my contemptorary time discussing things I want to talk more about, energetically. Thinking about Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” exerts all of the energy out of my body. I hope it’s fun to make appropriative racist “art” cuz it’s fucking exhausting, pointing it out again and again.

From when I first studied Lee’s work during my time in Chicago and up until now, I have gotten into several heated in-person and online arguments about her work. AND my adviser once told me: don’t you write articles really, to link to them during twitter fights? So: here I go.

Concerns over Lee’s “Projects” became very alive for me once again when I saw that one of Lee’s photograph from “Hispanic Project” was the main image for an article posted in racefiles.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with “Projects”— “Projects” was a durational performance series collected by Lee throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lee is a Korean artist residing in New York City. In “Projects” she “entered/adopted/appropriated” the visual language and aesthetics of ethnic, cultural and queer communities (the Yuppie Project, Punk Project, The Lesbian Project, Skater Project, Exotic Dancers Project, Hispanic Project, Hip-Hop Project and on) and documented this appropriation by asking a “passerbyer” or a member of that community to take a snapshot of her, often posing with members of the communities. The community members are unmarked, unnamed–irrespective of intention, they authenticate the existence of community and space but exist without citation. They are called Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” and are sold for $3,000-5,000 per print (limited to editions of 3 people, this is HIGH ART people so everything will be crass and petty and ridiculous). Lee is the only compensated and credited artist of “Projects.”

Because we live in the twilight zone, long time NYC resident Lee has stated that regarding her position in the work,

“I’m not Korean-American, which means I don’t have issues about race… But I’m really happy that people talk a lot about different things from my work.” Good to know Lee believes Koreans in the US and Koreans overall don’t have “raceproblems. Good to know that it is from this gaze in which we can utilize to interrogate the series.

"Yuppie Project"

From: Auction Lot 265

 

Lee’s “projects” are often discussed as “transformations.” The tagline is: she can transform into anyone! Is this true? In the “Hip Hop Project” Lee is clearly in blackface. Black. Face. I am severely unconvinced of this “transformation.” I am clearly convinced of its violence. Firstly, why is this called the Hip Hop Project… secondly, why is she in blackface? No seriously, why? Is it because she believes she must appear to be “black” to be in a “Hip-Hop” enjoying community? And that being Black is associated with Hip-Hop for her (I’ve looked through “Projects” and I see no Black people anywhere else, no Black punks, yuppies, skaters, etc). And she thinks blackface makes her Black…cuz she doesn’t have race issues so she gets a pass from regarding the history of blackface…? So transformation because this is photographic proof of her passing (but what is passing for someone who believes they don’t have “race” issues?)? But it isn’t passing so, who believes this is transformation?

Perhaps white avant-gardists will pressure that “Projects” pressure points questions of performativity and the self. Most of us at this point agree that gender is a performance—it is a learned, cultivated performance, ritual, exchange, an a priori of colonial, patriarchal violence. Gender needs to both be reimagined and abolished. And yet I’m hesitant to apply the same ideas and theories of gender performativity onto race and ethnicity (luckily the politics and ethics of “Like Race” arguments regarding gender/sexuality have already been critiqued by: “‘Like Race’ Arguments” by Janet E. Halley, and Freedom with Violence in “Rights Based Freedoms” by Chandan Reddy)

I don’t know if I can fully express, right now, why race and ethnicity are not merely  performances–though I’m sure performativity might be a useful word to discuss some of its composition. Perhaps it is because I think race and ethnicity are embodied in different ways, and the embodiments have differing structural stakes.

What is clear to me is that Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” does not rupture/unravel/tease the representation of such embodiments and stakes, it reduces them to question of visual appropriation and evidence games and in doing so, it caricaturizes. Vanity Fair has Rachel Dolezal. Museums and galleries have Nikki S. Lee?

Warning: I am posting Lee’s documentation of her blackface…

 

"Hip Hop Project"

Images from: “Nikki S. Lee can Transform into Anyone”

 

If this series doesn’t remind you of colonial travel photography, I don’t know what will.

There are many many layers to “Projects”: there are clear pre-conceived notions to the “identities” that Lee believes she is “performing” and has much to do with the exterior. The “evidence” is crafted and prepared even before she appears visually to be “part” of them. Research, then, is not her existence in the various cultural, racial and ethnic communities, but from her understandings of their archetypes.

After seeing Lee’s “Hispanic Project” on a Racefiles article about the urgency to situate Asian American as not a monolith (yes), I reached out to Soya Jung, who is a writer and activist I deeply deeply admire, who often writes for Racefiles and is also a senior partner at Changelab, to let her know about the political implications of the “Hispanic Project” photograph. Jung informed the author, Alison Roh Park, and the author responded by posting this note at the end of the article,

“It was brought to my attention that this photo of Nikki S. Lee’s project might be interpreted as brownface. While I can’t attest to any analysis or intention by the artist (I really don’t know, maybe she had none whatsoever), I can say that when I first picked up her book and saw this image in my late teens at Shakespeare Books by St. Marks St., it was the first time I had ever seen a representation of an east Asian woman who was not whitewashed or in completely orientalized fashion. It was the first time I saw someone who had a face like mine, dressed and styled like me. I would ask anyone who thinks this to challenge how they essentialize what “Hispanic” or Latin@ is and/or conflate that with their class associations. Latin@s are not a monolith, either. I’d also like to note that if a reader feels discomfort (perhaps because they believe that Asians are uniformly more privileged than Latin@s in art and media representation), that’s the point. Let’s get uncomfortable.”

Park’s response, encapsulates most of the dynamics of Lee’s work that have remained uncritiqued.

 

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The bar for NO when it comes to blackface and brownface must be: All kinds, every kind!   

Darkening one’s skin to pose for a series of photographs in a community one has no affinity with, does not belong to, and as an entertainment project with ongoing profit plan—this is not an interpretation of blackface. It’s not interpretation. It’s historical. It’s brownface. It’s blackface.

Lee has given countless interviews where she discusses her strain of inquiry. Her process. How she hired a personal trainer to pose for the “Exotic Dancers Project” how she utilized a makeup artist for the “Senior’s Project.” I realize that representation seems like a flat immediate surface—but it is not. Treating it as a surface for our pleasures does not absolve our responsibility to the structures that make the surface possible.

I was fascinated by Park’s claim that, “It was the first time I saw someone who had a face like mine, dressed and styled like me.” In discussing the qualifiers of authentic representation and hair politics, in My Hair Trauma scholar and writer Mimi Thi Nguyen asks,

“How do we perpetuate the stereotypes we (think we) oppose? Whom are we different from or whom do we presume to be different from?

Does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others?”

This question best encapsulates how to critically engage with Lee’s “Project’s: How does “breaking the silence” of stereotype liberate some and (continue to) depreciate others? How do certain forms of representation become liberation (is representation ever liberation)–and can we materialize the processes this liberation takes when it becomes something else?

Before I continue I want to be clear that Park is not the first to applaud Lee’s “Projects.” The list of writers who have defended this project is very long. Though Lee does not identify as Asian American, she is often included by other art critics as a snubbed Asian American artist. There are countless articles about how her work reveals how “Fluid Identities” are and “Projects” has been collected by major museums and galleries. Lee’s work is supported, purchased and circulated. I want to be clear that while Park’s statement reads as unabashedly unresearched and decontextualized and while I am critical of the framing, Park is not the first or the only writer to uplift Lee’s usage of brownface and appropriation as an “interesting” project, or to further circulate it without context. My interest is not in building a personal or individual critique of Park’s statement but in critiquing how and why Lee’s “Projects” have retained this level of decontextualized circulation and acclaim without scrutiny, and to offer critical readings of Lee’s series.    

Lee’s project of entering into communities for 3 months at a time, getting her photograph taken, to leave and sell the commodity—is troubling to say the least. But for anyone who identifies with whomever she might pose to be in the photograph—what are the names of the others in the frame? The ones who legitimatize and become her “extras”? Who are they? Is the series enthralling because community members of all kinds (proud confederate flag owners, Latinx, etc) TOO are entranced as performance artists? Are they contracted laborers, performers, artists or are they fixed markers of authentication (and what does this imply?)?

To fixate on Lee as the center and as the source of pleasure is troubling as she makes clear she is the only non-community member: she is the Artist. This is her “performance.” Are Park and others who have uncritically written about Lee’s work, elevating the “Asian American” artist when peering into these photographs: as the ultimate artist/appropriator/owner?  

Additionally, “Hispanic Project”— is the title of Lee’s series. This is not the viewer’s interpretation—it is what we are given. In thinking about the title, “Hispanic Project” series—more troubling questions arise. Such as: in “assimilating” into or appropriating from a “Hispanic” community—what does it mean that Lee decided on this particular fashion, makeup, setting? What does it speak of the project? Her gaze? Is “Hispanic Project” a title the people posed in the photograph might agree with, is this their terminology?  

In the series, as a body that can enter and exit out of communities, as one who gets to DECIDE where she belongs and for how long and with whom, Lee positions herself as fundamentally more privileged. There are some serious class questions plunged into the work, as in who gets to “play” “Yuppie” and train to “perform” “Exotic Dancer”? What are the stakes of work, class standing and racial and ethnic community as “PLAY” and “performance” that can be learned and unlearned? This question of structural privilege is one that can be pushed in thinking about this relationship between Asian American and Latinx/“Hispanic” Communities—what are the interactions and how does this manifest in gallery representation? What are the histories and present contemporaries regarding solidarities, antagonisms and exploitation between Latinx, Black and Asian American communities? Is the relationship fluid? In whose fantasies? And who profits?

I find it peculiar that Park selected an image from Lee’s “Projects” to discuss how Asian Americans are not a monolith. “Projects” goes out of its way to reduce ethnic, racial, cultural and gender communities into particularized clothing and body types commodified into snapshot, rarified, limited editioned photographs. Does everyone else need to be reduced for the representation of one Asian American to be complicated?

If Park’s “Let’s get uncomfortable” claim is what drives the production and circulation of blackface and appropriation-based “art”—which feels disingenuous at best, and cruel at worst—I would respond that I’m not uncomfortable or comfortable. Regarding Lee’s “Projects” I am ANGRY. It pisses me off. I do not need Museum Art style blackface and brownface in order to understand that Asian Americans are perpetrators of anti-black and anti-brown violence. Additionally, I do not need the circulation of Asian American imagery that’s not “orientalized” yet still rooted in white supremacy and white supremacist understanding of community, difference and assimilation—if these are my options I choose neither. I will not push or campaign for either category. But are these the only options?

In discussing the tactics of the neoliberal university, Rod Ferguson writes that, “Hegemonic power denotes the disembodied and abstract promotion of minority representation without fully satisfying the material and social redistribution of minoritized subjects, particularly where people of color are concerned.” If these are our choices then: Invisibility against surveillance, against any narrative of assimilation. As Ellen Wu has stated, being Chinese American is not enough. Being and seeing more Asian Americans should not be enough.

Labor, circulation, structure, citation and money—these are not concerns that can be dismissed for the promise of a representation of myself that I find more alluring, more uncomfortable, more fitting.

Additionally blackface cannot be tolerated. By anyone. Asian American and otherwise. Utilizing blackface in order to make me or others “feel uncomfortable” or to be provocative is not a thing. I shouldn’t have to bring up how only recently arguments regarding yellowface have been utilized in the same regard. I understand that neoliberalism values replication, and values replication of its system oppressively against the radical imagination—but I refuse to accept Nikki S. Lee as the bar for non-normative Asian American imaging and representation. Blackface and anti-blackness are part of kpop, appropriation of black culture is widespread in Asian American cultural production—so let’s call it what it is: Nikki S. Lee is normative Asian America imaging.

In discussing Lee, my friend and the wonderful writer William Anderson tells me, “I think the art world is amazing that you get to do this really really regular racist shit and say: this is art!” And it’s true. This kind of representation, when devoid of the banner of gallery “Art” would just be more basic racist shit that pisses people off on tumblr or gets roasted on twitter. But not worth $3,000-$5,000 dollars or labelled uplifting…

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I want to push the desire for “differing” Asian Americans in art, in representation:

In desiring images of those who look like me, or traversing where I might want to traverse—what becomes the hurt? What are the material conditions required to center different kinds of selves in representation?

The unnamed bodies in “Hispanic project” and “Hip-Hop Project” (this title is so fucking awful I can’t) are they situated and uncredited because they remain, and Lee travels? Remaining. And travel. Who gets to travel this way and who does not and how and why?

The title “Nikki S. Lee Can Turn Into Anyone” is revealing. Evidence is visibility based. Politics is visual, marked on the outside. Difference is commodity cuz difference is visible? In many ways, this is the way white supremacy thinks about assimilation; as visibility based arguments regarding dress, respectability, and selection. There are grave questions connected to this. Are our communities marked visually? Is assimilation visual? How to get the ingredients right? How to destroy them.   

Are there ingredients to assimilation: proper codes to learn and unlearn—so that it’s a choice, a travel, a fancy. Smile for the picture!

Nguyen writes,

“I mean, aren’t white punks always complaining about “blue hair” discrimination, as if a jar of Manic Panic magically re-positioned their own social status on some level of “equally” marginal footing with people of color? And where does that leave the rest of us who cannot wash our colors away?

What does it mean to dye your hair blue?

Angela Davis critiques the fashion-as-politics retro-perspective that conflates the Afro with black liberation: the nostalgia, she writes, is misplaced. Her hair was not the whole of her politics.”

Nguyen strikes at the emptiness of Lee’s projects. Perhaps the narrative of assimilation and appropriation are currently visual. And perhaps this is how we currently understand US assimilation: as processes of visual appropriation, snapshot documentation. Yet, politics is not merely a game of visuality. Lee’s project starkly displays what the U.S. Museum and gallery demographic believes is “turning into anyone” and these anyones, are differentiated via clothing, makeup, personal training metrics? And what is an adaptation devoid of politics—what does this provide?

It was the Hot Topics credo that non-normativity could be purchased in a corporate chain at the mall. During my tweens I liked Hot Topics, wore imported platforms that declared: beware of kicks, and dyed my hair all kinds of colors. I read the canon and didn’t think this was a problem. I thought the difference between me and the others were these marked “preferences.” Politically, it was an unmemorable time.

Visual markers of difference fall into the narrative that we can see who our comrades, colleagues, and enemies are on the spot. This is very easy, this is very desirable. This is also sloppy and damaging surveillance. It manages and faults the body for the violences of the structure. It fails to see (cuz it can’t) the many reasons—for differing survival concerns—how some bodies remain actively undifferentiated, or falsely differentiated: their politics, their positions actively, visually, impenetrable.