Nikki Seung-hee Lee (born 1970)[2] is a visual artist born in Geochang, South Korea. Currently[when?] working in New York City, Lee works professionally in the field of photography and film. Her work is informed as an 'Asian notions of identity, where identity is not a static set of traits belonging to an individual, but something constantly changing and defined through relationships with other people.' [3]

Early life and education

During her childhood, Lee was exposed to a variety of foreign cultures through the media. She developed an interest in learning about various cultures and its people; however, because she believed it was impossible for a female artist to gain recognition, she was hesitant to pursue a career in art. Lee pursued an acting career instead, but left due to insecurities about her physical appearance.[4]

Lee earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography at Chung-Ang University in South Korea in 1993. After a year, she moved to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to study commercial photography. She subsequently earned her Master of Arts in photography at New York University (NYU) in 1998.[5][6] At NYU, she became interested in the conceptual aspect of photography. Before her studies there, she mainly worked on documentary projects, which required her to go out to the streets and take photographs; she disliked this aspect of documentary because she did not like "bothering people."[4]


In Lee's early career, she started as a photo assistant for the LaChapelle Studio. She carried lighting, helped set up the studio, and loaded film as an intern. Although she enjoyed working for commercial photography, she wanted to "make something on her own," which propelled her to enter a new career as a photographer.[4]

Projects, 1997–2001

Lee's most noted work, Projects (1997–2001), began as a graduation requirement. Photographs were of herself with many groups of people such as drag queens, punks, swing dancers, senior citizens, Latinos, hip-hop musicians and fans, skateboarders, lesbians, young urban professionals, and schoolgirls. With a simple point-and-shoot camera, she asked others to record her.[7] She immersed herself into each American subculture and created a new self-identity. Lee's work was focused on investigating notions of identity and the uses of vernacular photography, rather than creating beautiful pictures.[8] Lee would select a subculture, research it, and adopt the clothing, customs, and mannerisms of the group to fully integrate herself with the culture. She would try out many culturally diverse types of makeup, hairstyles, dyeing salon, multicolor contact lenses, and dance exercises. After three or more months of developing the identity, Lee would ask a person to take a picture of her with the group.[9] The use of the automatic camera provided Lee with a red timestamp, capturing that moment the person took a picture.[10]

While Lee's projects appear completely unique from one another, there is a common thread among all of the subcultures she portrays. One such is that each of the groups she chose to create an identity has a distinctive look that functions as a connection between the members of their community. Lee's projects highlight her underlying concept of how other people make her a certain kind of person and the influence of inner relationships on the idea of identity.[11]

Lee continues to question the concepts of identity and social behavior; she believes that "essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real action is the transformation of our way of expression- the outward expression of our psyche."[12] Lee claims that when she shows her work, she prefers presenting several photographs together since they are all connected. The projects support and define one another. Lee's ultimate goal is for the audience to create their own story when they see her work.

To many,[who?] The Yuppie Project (1998) is the most significant of Lee's series. Lee immerses herself in the world of Wall Street professionals and whiteness as a race. The Yuppie Project highlights how white people rarely acknowledge the intricate subcultures of their own race by focusing on documenting a small minority of influential men in business settings. Whiteness is represented in two ways; one being the affluence of these young business men and the other being the exclusivity and alienation. In a couple of months of this project, Lee adopts the appearance, body language, and speech pattern of the subcultures to document them in her photographs. Unlike other projects of the series in which Lee is almost indistinguishable from her new clique, Lee stands out in the photographs of The Yuppy Project.[13]

Lee's work in Projects has received criticism of cultural appropriation and blackface.[14][15]


Parts (2002–2005), uses images of Lee posing in different settings with a male partner, cropped to make it impossible to directly see who she is with,[7][8] leaving only a trace of the man, such as an arm or a foot. This picture sets the focus completely on Lee, which suggests that her identity also changes after each emotional relationship. Lee states that after each photo, her companions state that she looks different than what they thought. With this project, Lee demonstrates the development of an identity that grows and mutates based on the unknown identity of the companion. Parts portray how one of Lee's persona diverges on where she is, how she acts, and how her own identity conforms around the identity of her partner.

In 2006, Lee released the film, A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee. The project, described as a "conceptual documentary", alternates segments presenting Lee as two distinct personalities, one a reserved academic and another an outgoing socialite. It had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, October 5–7, 2006.[9] The film appears to be a true Nikki documentary, a young woman who is serious about making a second documentary about herself. Nikki No. 2, an impulsive personality, flaunts in the photo. Lee explained in an interview, "Nikki number one should be Nikki, and Nikki number two should be fake. But both are Nikki fake."[11] Through this work, she aims to point out the interesting concept of showing reality and non-reality at the same time.

During her career, Lee's only work for a commercial magazine was with Black Book. Lee collaborated with the magazine on the theme of bourgeois, creating photographs of herself and her companion as a bourgeois couple.[16]

One of her most recent works is Layers (2008), which is a series of photographs that show layers of the portraits she collected from 14 different cities. Lee would requests street artists to draw her portrait in which she would layer them together underneath a lightbox and take a photo of the mix. The purpose of this project was to find out how people from different cities and ethnicity would view her and describe her features. With this project, Lee asserts that everyone has complex, multilayered personalities, in which any small parts can be viewed by others of different ethnicities.[13]

Since the 1990s, Lee has spoken often about her motivations behind the work. She has emphasized the importance of group identity and social performance in Asia, as opposed to the more personal sense of identity in the US. In an interview with curator RoseLee Goldberg published in 2006, she stated: “Western culture is very much about the individual, while Eastern culture is more about identity in the context of society. You simply cannot think of yourself out of context.”[14]

Personal life

In 2007, Lee married actor Teo Yoo.[17][18]


Lee's work is held in the following permanent collections:[19][20]


  1. ^ Yi Nam-hui (July 2011), "뉴욕이 주목한 아티스트 니키 리 [Noted New York artist Nikki Lee]", The Dong-A Ilbo, no. 622, pp. 310–315, retrieved 2011-09-29
  2. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0714878775. {{cite book}}: |last1= has generic name (help)
  3. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  4. ^ a b c Lee, Nikki S., 1970- (2001). Projects. Ferguson, Russell,, Vicario, Gilbert,, Martin, Lesley A. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany. ISBN 978-3775710916. OCLC 48209778.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Allison, Amanda (January 2009). "Identity in Flux: Exploring the Work of Nikki S. Lee". Art Education. 62 (1): 25–30. doi:10.1080/00043125.2009.11519001. ISSN 0004-3125. S2CID 194976015.
  6. ^ "Nikki S. Lee". International Center of Photography. 2 March 2016. Retrieved 28 December 2019.
  7. ^ a b Miller, J. Macneill (September 2007), "The Impersonal Album: Chronicling Life in the Digital Age.", Afterimage, 35 (2): 9–12
  8. ^ a b "Fluid Identities: The "Parts" and "Projects" of Nikki Lee". Broad Strokes: The National Museum of Women in the Arts' Blog. 1 November 2013. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  9. ^ a b Lee, Phil (January 2008), ""Indefinite "Nikkis" in a World of Hyperreality: An Interview with Nikki S. Lee."", Chicago Art Journal, 18: 76–93
  10. ^ Lee, Hyun Joo. "A Passage to the Undercommons: Virtual Formation of Identity in Nikki S. Lee's Self-Transformative Performance". Cultural Critique. 104: 72–100 – via Project MUSE.
  11. ^ a b University of Michigan (19 August 2009), Nikki S. Lee - Parts and Projects – via YouTube
  12. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  13. ^ a b "Photographer Nikki S. Lee Can Turn Into Anyone". Architect Magazine. Retrieved 28 December 2019.
  14. ^ a b Vogel, Wendy (2020-03-26). "Twenty Years On, Nikki S. Lee's Shapeshifting Art Provokes Debates About Cultural Appropriation". Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  15. ^ Kim, Eunsong (2016-05-30). "Nikki S. Lee's "Projects"—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in "Art"". contemptorary. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  16. ^ Waltener, Shane. "The Real Nikki." Modern Painters 17, no. 1 (2004): 67-69.
  17. ^ "Yoo Teo Says His Dream Is to Become a World-Famous Actor". ZAPZEE. 2021-02-04. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  18. ^ Lim, Ashley. "The Project Series: A Profile on Artist Nikki Lee". The Science Survey. Retrieved 2021-08-05.
  19. ^ "Nikki S. Lee". Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  20. ^ "Nikki S. Lee | artnet". Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  21. ^ "The Hispanic Project (#1)". Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  22. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  23. ^ "Nikki S. Lee". International Center of Photography. 2 March 2016. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  24. ^ "Results - the query [Artist:Nikki S. Lee] | COLLECTION SEARCH | FUKUOKA ASIAN ART MUSEUM". FUKUOKA ASIAN ART MUSEUM - COLLECTION SEARCH. Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  25. ^ "Nikki S. Lee | Artist Profile". NMWA. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  26. ^ "The Hispanic Project (2)". Indianapolis Museum of Art Online Collection. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  27. ^ "The Hispanic Project (20)". Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. 2015-03-12. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  28. ^ "Exchange: Paris #206". Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  29. ^ Harvard. "From the Harvard Art Museums' collections The Hip Hop Project (32)". Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  30. ^ "The Yuppie Project".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  31. ^ Retrieved 2021-03-12. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  32. ^ "The Skateboarders Project (14)". SFMOMA. Retrieved 2021-03-12.
  33. ^ "The Hispanic Project (1) (2010-207)". Retrieved 2021-03-12.

External links