Week 6 – Artist – Nikki S. Lee

“My life and work are not separate. I just have more roles than other people. And I have photographs.” ~ Nikki S. Lee


Nikki S. Lee is a photographic artist with her art starting in the 1990’s and continuing still today. Unlike most photographers, Lee herself does not actually take the pictures, but instead is part of the picture. In her many works, Lee herself has transformed into many different people of different races, backgrounds, social standing, and occupations making her works stand out from the rest. Her art is a look into what identity really is and her view of it. She wanted to be able to identify with other groups, which would then let them identify with her (an idea she took from a Buddhist saying “I can be someone else and that someone else can be me as well.”).

Lee’s Works

“It’s about me. The question is about me, but to show me with the other people in the project becomes every much significant. The identity question of myself requires me to look at the relationships with myself and other people.” ~ Lee when asked if her art is about her or the people by the creators project


Nikki S. Lee took her art from just being pictures on a wall to being a social experiment. She sought to seek out exactly what identity is for each person. We all know that how we live, where we live, our race, and so many other factors influence what we identify as. Lee knew this going into her works, and she tried pushing the bounds of the conventional ideas of identities. Not only did she replicate herself into each “identity” she worked with, but she actually became it. It may look easy to just dress as the groups do and snap a picture, but Lee took her projects way further than that. She observed the groups for a few days, got the look straight, and then joined them and their lifestyle for a week or two. Her art went way beyond the photographs in building understanding between different groups in New York City.

Lee identifying as Hispanic
Lee identifying as a skater
Lee identifying as a “Yuppie”
Lee identifying as an exotic dancer

In her next series of photographs, Lee leaned more to building a scene with other “characters”. While in her last series she worked with groups, in this series she created personal stories. Throughout the series she is still the center of the pictures, but many of the shots include a man but almost always cutting off the head to leave the man unrecognizable. This is where the series got its name, “Parts”. Each picture is obviously telling some kind of story but there is always a part missing, a side to the story that we don’t know. We could guess what it is, but that is only off of what Lee expresses for us. For example:

Here a woman could be in a fight with her significant other, or she could have just heard bad news.
Here the man could be either lovingly or sensually stroking her hair.
Here the woman could be escorted to a formal dinner or could be exploring alone with the man.

And me?

Identity is a curious and sensitive topic for some people. Some find comfort in their identities, and others may feel insecure about them.Some can live with what they would typically be identified, while others work to change their identification. Something that has been coming up in news are people like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, both very strong and influential women, though they were not born that way. Though both were born male, that isn’t how they identified themselves, so they took the chance and changed their physical traits to match what they identified as. Another case similar to this yet somewhat unheard of is the instance with Rachel Dolezal managing to disguise herself as an African-American for years. She was born Caucasian, but for the same reason Jenner and Cox changed their appearance, she changed hers to match what she identified as. This sparked a lot of debate on if that is acceptable or not. Something that came out of it though, is a realization that “race” is an idea rather than an actual description. This just brings more complications to the idea of human rights and how much further we still are from reaching an all around human equality.

“People think a big camera and big lighting will make art, and I want to break that rule. If you have a great concept, it can be art.” ~ Nikki S. Lee





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