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 blueherald.com) (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.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

8 replies on “White Like Me”

  1. I watched a couple of minutes of this video and thought it was really bad performance…not funny, not interesting, not even making sense.  Good luck Nate!  

  2. Hi Nate,  Good question!  Thanks for asking.  First let me just say, I’m the white mom of a 35 yr old bi-racial daughter, so I’ve been involved with racial issues since my youth… before, during, and since the civil rights movement. And with the particular complexities of bi-racial identity struggles.  That doesn’t mean I have answers, but it’s not a new subject for me.  I’m also an artist.  

    What I saw when I watched your video was that your performance was not accessible. My comments “not funny, not interesting, not even making sense” mean that I think either humor, some really interesting action or event, or creating logical discourse…were missing.Maybe the dialogue you eventually had with the one guy was what you really wanted, but if so, it didn’t work.  He was pretty articulate, but your position as the “performance artist” was a wall, not a door.  Even the clipboard and pencil seemed to point and separate. And it began to sound like you were gonna scold him for not understanding to you, not getting you, which is how you probably felt/feel.  I get that point, but it is such a huge leap you are asking the person on the street to make, that it actually feels controlling rather than inviting.  It felt a bit like “practical jokes” when the intention is to make someone else awkward for the jokester’s benefit in the end.  You are actually putting the spotlight on them, and that’s not fun or funny, or effective…on the street.  

    Again, I’m just talking off the top of my head…my reaction and thoughts.

    My daughter has a blog called “White Girl in Black Face”….

    Best, Judith

    1. Hi Judith

      I’m still not sure how much of this is supposed to be talking with people individually on the street. I “broke character”. What you saw in the video was a (fortunate) interruption in a performance. It was like an audience member interrupting an actor on stage. Let’s be honest, the man (Will) was at first a heckler. I chose to release the raw video because our dialogue is arguably the most interesting part of the video. So perhaps it should be about those dialogues? This is just the beginning, and I am not sure yet. Perhaps “breaking character” is the performance? Still defining it. The White Ambassador is planned for performances through February 2012.

      In terms of how I responded to the heckler. Well, we’re getting into Monday morning quarterback there. I agree with you–I was so, so frustrated when I saw the video at how I came across. I was impatient and frustrated. I didn’t realize that this dialogue I was having with him was gold! It was the most important thing to airing out the issues! I mistakenly rushed through it. Only in hindsight, I see that those moments, are THE moments for this piece at least when presenting something thought provoking to people at home on YouTube. The article on the Huffington Post alone has nearly 600 comments of people talking about what I did. Success.

      In terms of me trying to make someone else feel awkward on the street. Well, yes. It is confrontational. Most of my performance work is. This is not a gallery where people come to see me. I have to make them see me. That is street performance. In street performance, nuance must be sacrificed at times. I only have a moment, and if I don’t get my message across or agenda in that moment, it’s gone and I lost.


  3. Oh…I’m sure you know Adrian Piper.  I remember her video “Cornered”….was mesmerizing. Her other performances in public I have only read about, not seen in person, or in video form.  

  4. Hi Nate,  Yeah, breaking character is what happened…and I thought to myself…so that’s what it’s really all about for this performer.  You wanted to have an actual conversation with an actual person and persuade him/her of something.   And for me that feels like propaganda…or proselytizing… rather than art.  On the other hand…if you don’t engage in that dialogue you have to depend on a more subtle osmosis of your message.  That’s what I would prefer…somehow.  That the point not be clarified or pushed so literally, but somehow embedded into the performance.  Having actual discussion with you…seems to defeat the purpose of doing it as art. If it’s more subtle than you may not know what effect you’re having, but it would remain your creative process anyway…and you might be in discover mode still.  I think the realm of activist art is very delicate…and I rarely like feeling preached to in any way.  I don’t like any moral message unless it just occurs as part of the experience internally.  Yes, the idea of your having to get attention is clear, but for me getting attention by making me uncomfortable or feel intruded on, is again, defeating the purpose.  I guess what I would ask is What IS the Pupose…?.  That’s not a challenge…just a question…


  5. ok…I feel that you are scratching the surface of  “racism”…maybe even “irritating” the surface…but not putting your creative/art thought into the “combatting”.  For a art-combat analogy I prefer tai chi…to boxing.  

    Anyway Nate…I haven’t read the 600+ comments you got on Huff Post…and I’m sure you are having interesting dialogue there…so I cheer you on and enjoyed the exchange.  I hope you did too.  Good luck.

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