A close look at the eccentric art of Nate Hill on Instagram, and the intersections of race and power in the age of social media.
There’s a guy on Instagram putting naked white women around his neck for sport. Posting under the account @trophyscarves and at TrophyScarves.com, Nate Hill is soliciting white women—mostly nude but also occasionally minimally dressed—and then hoisting them over and around his shoulders like, well, scarves. Hill, who is black, always appears dressed formally in a suit and bow-tie and large plastic glasses; the women, in their various states of undress, appear casual and their individual characteristics are largely irrelevant.
The account is home to a combination of so-called trophy scarf photos—some of them are mirror selfies, many of them obscure the women’s faces, all of them are of grainy, indelibly cell phone quality—and screenshots of text message and email communications with the women qua scarves. In the messages, Hill specifies that only white women qualify for the project, and that they must be under 140lbs. Since the first image was posted a month ago, Trophy Scarves has amassed just over 3,500 followers and earned a growing chorus of confusion in response.
Trophy Scarves’ description reads, “I wear white women for status and power,” but offers nothing else in the way of explanation for the madness. The effect is sinister to say the least, but appears fundamentally misogynistic at worst. It is presented as an unadulterated fetishization of white womanhood, a literal representation of the way women have been treated as property, objects to be sexualized and mere accessories to men. The racial aspect in particular is front-and-center; for myriad reasons, and in large part thanks to the inextricable links between patriarchy and racism, white women have been considered the ultimate trophies for black men.
The racial aspect in particular is front-and-center; for myriad reasons, and in large part thanks to the inextricable links between patriarchy and racism, white women have been considered the ultimate trophies for black men.
So what does that mean for Trophy Scarves? "Well, there are people who see certain races as status symbols, and someone had to comment on that," Hill told Vice. Hill is a performance artist who makes self-avowed “socially engaged work using public space.” Previous projects include a commentary on racism in which he dressed up in whiteface. The artist’s context clarifies his intent, but whether or not he’s successful is subjective.
However, beyond the particulars of Hill’s project, which can easily be written off as either a valid commentary on race as status or a stereotypically vacuous exercise in modern performance art, his choice of Instagram as the primary venue for the project offers interesting insight into the social network’s expanding value. The world scoffed at Facebook last year when it handed over $1 billion to buy Instagram; it was surely a sign of the impending tech bubble, analysts and observers insisted. After all, how much value could there be in sharing photos of cats and omelets, even if there were millions of them?
But now, a year later, as Instagram's use case scenarios cut a wide swathe—from selfies to flea markets to snitch intimidation campaigns —the photo-sharing network is doing more than providing a convenient interface through which to post images. It is in fact contributing to the erosion of the walls between private and public by allowing users to effectively determine the intent of their posts and profiles, and therefore their virtual locale.
Hill presents the Trophy Scarves account not as a totality of himself like conventional users do with their profiles, but as a specific, predetermined, goal-oriented entity. Hill uses Instagram like another artist would a gallery or a public space, taking advantage of the flexibility of social media to make a point that would be difficult to execute elsewhere. It brings to mind Benny Winfield Jr, whose Instagram account is composed entirely of selfies that in aggregate are much more than the sum of the individual photos
It’s unlikely that Instagram will ever be $1 billion worth of art, but every post is a step in the right direction.
Rawiya Kameir is a regular contributor to Complex, and has written elsewhere for The Toronto Standard, Thought Catalog, and Time Out New York . She tweets often at @rawiya.