The Exotic Dancer Project (23) 2000

Nikki S. Lee shown lounging offstage, with her legs leaned up on a counter covered with bags and makeup
Nikki S. Lee, The Exotic Dancer Project (23), 2000; Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Nikki S. Lee

In 2000, Nikki S. Lee’s work took her to The Gold Club in Hartford, Connecticut, for The Exotic Dancer Project. For this and other Projects, Lee typically spent several months altering her appearance, style, and mannerisms in order to blend in with a specific social a group—swing dancers or senior citizens, for example. Preparation for this series proved more strenuous than some of her transformations, requiring the artist to follow a strict diet and exercise with a personal trainer.

The Exotic Dancer Project (23) features Lee offstage, presumably on a smoking break. Her outward gaze pulls the viewer in, while the V-shape of her pose her draws the eye to the counter filled with clothes, makeup, and hair products. As with all the works from her Projects, someone other than Lee took this photograph, and it includes the time stamp provided by point-and-shoot cameras to reinforce the snapshot quality. 

Though Lee spent time researching each of the various groups she has joined, she also credits her intuition and empathy for gaining acceptance. According to the artist, “It’s not about studying. I just know their emotions.”

National Museum of Women in the Arts