White Like Me

If the very non-commercial performance artist Nate Hill is best known for his works that explore deep issues like drugs, personal space, anger and death using the trappings of childhood imagery, like “Candy Crack Delivery Service,” “Free Bouncy Rides,” “Punch Me Panda” and “Death Bear,” his more recent work has been probing the American obsession with race.

A civil rights-era image of black Americans with the "I Am a Man" signs walking down a southern American street. (via (click to enlarge)

“White Ambassador” is a provocative title for an art work in America and it is Hill’s latest performance piece. The title suggests that a group that has traditionally held the reins power in this country are in need of some type of go between who will liaise with those outside their ranks. What exactly does “white” need an ambassador for? It also highlights the artificial category of whiteness and the absurdity that entails, who is white exactly?

Walking through the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Harlem in white face and a sign around his neck that reads, “White People Do Not Smell Like Wet Dog,” Hill is tapping into something that as a biracial American he is very cognizant of, black attitudes towards whites. An earlier project @WhiteSmellBot continues to sniff around Twitter looking for signs of black racism towards whites and it has found some provocative tweets that suggest, yes, many black Americans seem to think that white people smell like wet dog. I asked the artist if this was all about pushing buttons.

“I’m interested in calling attention to a kind of stereotyping that is overlooked in my opinion,” he said. “No, it’s not just about pushing buttons, but I do hope to make black people think about their stereotypes of white people. You sorta have to push buttons to accomplish this.”

The sign obviously refers to the civil-era placards worn by black Americans in their fight for justice. The black umbrella Hill uses as a prop seems to suggest the parasols used in New Orleans during Mardi Gras parades or jazz funerals or some other type of traditional African-American gathering, the meaning is open ended like much of what the artist does. Then there’s the white face paint, which may lead someone to think he’s a mime or a performer of some sort (which he is).

“I’ve only done one 30-minute performance so far, but that felt like 3 hours,” he says. “The video does a pretty good job at covering a lot of the issues that I’m sure were running through the minds of some of the folks in Harlem that day. Why is he attacking black people? Aren’t white people more racist? Haven’t white people been racist longer? He’s not white, so why does he even care?”

“Yes, one woman on the street asked me if I was a mime because I was not performing yet, so my sign was covered. I said yes. So she asked, ‘Then why are you talking?!’ Haha,” he added.

Hill plans to do three performances a week until February 2012. He tells me that he will announce the times of his performances on his Twitter account @natexhill, so follow him there.

The following is a video the artist produced with Tod Seelie, who is also responsible for all the photographs, about his first time and so far only time on the streets of Harlem as the “White Ambassador.”

Correction: an earlier version of this post indicated the video was by Ty Hardaway instead of Tod Seelie.

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