The performance artist Nate Hill is known for his groundbreaking work on race in contemporary culture, examining the idolization of white women as ideals of beauty and femininity. In one recent project, he sold milk gargled by college-educated white women. In another, he donned white face. His new project “Trophy Scarves” might be his most controversial yet. In an attempt to shed light on the way men in power look at race and women, he invites white women over Craigslist to sit for nude photos posed as scarves draped around his neck. The female models find the project engaging and entertaining, and they choose to participate for free. He has seen white women both idolized and degraded by serving as symbols of “status and power,” and he aims to address that in his work. He tells VICE, “there are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that.”
The images are disturbing all the more so because of Hill’s choice to use the medium of the iPhone and the selfie. Selfies and Instagram are designed in part for the purpose of bragging to one’s network. Hill’s images provide a truly unsettling imitation of something like “Rich Kids of Instagram.” But instead of Hermes scarves, he accessorizes with women who fit narrowly defined definitions of Western beauty. The use of mirrors in the images highlights the narcissism of this perspective, as well as the objectification of women it entails.
Although this body of work bravely and admirably points out a problem in the way our society views race and women, I fear that it stops there, failing to offer a more subversive or nuanced narrative. It’s unclear if Hill is enthusiastically playing at being “the bad guy” who fetishizes women based on their race, or if this work is a not-yet-realized critique of such a fetish. In some images, he looks straight ahead and plays an earnest role, but in others he breaks character, looking tired, amused, or distracted. He has asserted that who he is in the photograph doesn’t matter, explaining, “It may be a character, or maybe I think white women are just better! [...] Either way, who cares?” Because the images do not define his relationship to the women, either as a troubled womanizer confessing his darkest thoughts or as a white knight seeking to end exploitation, the only statement that emerges is an over-simplified “objectification exists.” Right now, the images serve only as further evidence of disturbing views of women.
I greatly admire much of Hill’s work, but I think here he offers a disturbing portrayal of the African American male. At the turn of the century, the amazing Ida B. Wells wrote about lynching, a wrong that had much to do with Western culture’s idolization of the white woman. She explained that white women were viewed as weak, pure pictures of Victorian modesty and that black men were tragically seen as their predators; this disturbing way of thinking of course stoked much of the horrific racism of the time. In some ways, Hill’s work reinforces these offensive and outdated ideas; he is shown objectifying the women, who often appear limp and unconscious in his arms. The images contain little humanity, and Hill’s choice to put two groups of oppressed people, women and people of color, into such stereotypical roles isn’t progressive.
Let’s hope that as the project develops further, the artist’s purpose will become clearer and that racist, sexist, and degrading messages will be offset by a more critical perspective. Unlike the Instagram images, the photographs available on his website have more potential. They are beautifully shot in a more surreal and sensual way; the women appear more active and sculptural (sometimes clothed), and his visage betrays more feeling and complexity than we see in the Instagram shots.
What do you think of Hill’s work? Is it effective in critiquing exploitation and racial biases? Or do you see the attempts as just another forum for objectification?
Images via VICE and Instagram