Arts Issue 2018 | Music | Visual Arts

Portrait of an Abstract Contemporary Artist

Nikko Washington on gentrification, aesthetic form, and the exploration of the Black experience

Kahari Blackburn

You won’t catch Nikko Washington storytelling through the mic like his Savemoney crew members.

“Hell nah,” he exclaims when the question is brought up. “I’ve been in hella studios and everybody has freestyled before, but I never had the urge to sit with the headphones and write on a piece of paper. And I don’t think I will.”

But when thinking back on the many times he’s been asked about his rap skills, he laughs and offers: “I’ll paint though.”

With wild, colorful strokes of the paintbrush, Washington, a contemporary artist, creative director, and graphic designer, creates poignant narratives that illustrate the Black experience from his perspective.

“If I do a piece about it, that means I’ve directly witnessed it or I’m referencing something in the past that’s happening now,” he explains. “For me, the story is already in my mind. I rarely sketch things. It all stems from colors of mood and colors of the actual subject matter. So, if I’m doing a piece that is going to highlight”—he points to a painting behind me—“inside the organs, I’m going to do a softer tone to blend the color; to really amplify what’s going on at the center or focal point. If I’m doing something that’s going to evoke even more emotion, I might use a color like a red, or do something that’s very toned. It gives you a different feel when you approach it or even when it catches your eye in the corner. It’s going to draw you in, in [some] way, some sort of emotional thing.”

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The artist’s studio greets you with a wave of energy.  Colorful paintings adorn the white walls.  Washington extends his hand for a formal hello. His voice is low and his smile is welcoming. Once fully inside his atelier, he offers a sneak peek of a few creations currently in the works. “I’m trying to figure out what to include in my upcoming show,” he says. “I think I’m close, but I need a few more.”

That day, Washington is dressed all in black with a skull hat that both covers and exposes his almost-shoulder length dreadlocks. During our time together, he makes small talk and shares a snippet of the day’s activities—a trip to the eye doctor and a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago.

The obvious would be to kick off a discussion on Washington’s longtime (and now celebrity-status) friends: Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper, Towkio, and the rest of the Savemoney collective. But instead, we dive into his Hyde Park stomping grounds and its influence on how he approaches art and creativity. 

“Hyde Park is so important to me. All of my homies that I’ve known for fifteen to sixteen years, and two I’ve known for twenty years, grew up in Hyde Park. We’d always walk to each other’s house. We’d just show up at somebody’s door,” the twenty-four-year-old begins to reminisce with delight in his eyes.

“To me, it was like a Black utopia. I accredit [Hyde Park and Wicker Park] to most things about me. By my crib I’d see blocks where there’s a permission wall with graffiti, and it would be all these crews painting all day. There were different styles and people would give pointers. I would sit there and watch. It was so enlightening to see people [being] friendly, painting graffiti … peacefully expressing themselves.”

The permission wall was a cultural staple in Hyde Park for over twenty years. Free of police regulation and boasting fifty feet of concrete, it was a distinctive part of Chicago’s graffiti scene before it was destroyed in 2014 for the construction of apartments “loaded with exciting amenities”—such as a Target.

Since the reign of former president Barack Obama, who resided just a few blocks away from downtown Hyde Park, the neighborhood has experienced a rejuvenation, with a “Downtown Chicago” sensibility and similar architectural layout. It’s a facelift that leaves Washington with mixed feelings.

“I was at the ‘new Harper Court’ and saw a sign that said Downtown Hyde Park, and it really [pained] me. I was offended. Like, are you kidding me? How is 53rd Street downtown,” he asked.

He continued: “The University [of Chicago], as they were already doing [before Obama’s election], is buying more and more of these places. Every couple of months, I see something. Apartment buildings that are too much money, Target, Whole Foods, not forgetting we already had a Treasure Island. A fuckin’ hotel, Native Foods!,”  he laughs. “You only see Native Foods in [Lincoln Park] or Wicker Park.”

Then, the flip-side of it all.

“But, you look at it all and it’s nothing but Black people working in there and it’s cool. Eventually, it’s going to be too expensive. On one hand, I hate gentrification, but on the other hand, I do understand change and can accept it. Chicago, even the history and different neighborhoods that have moved around—you just know that nothing is going to stay the same forever.”

Washington’s emotion finds its way into his artistry. One example is “Fix it Up Don’t Tear it Down,” a thirty-six-inch by forty-eight-inch painting dedicated to the Cabrini-Green Homes, a public housing high-rises whose demolition displaced residents and sparked a conversation about gentrification. Today, all that’s left of Cabrini-Green is a strip of rowhouses; much of the area has been replaced by condos.

In the eighth grade, Washington attended Skinner West Elementary. When the school went through renovations, students were relocated to Sojourner Truth Elementary, located near Cabrini. The uproot took place just as the final tower was being torn down. Washington recalls seeing the aftermath and remnants of what once was. “There were people still there. Displaced. There were all these new businesses, a Barnes & Noble, but it wasn’t like it is now and how you see it today. I remember seeing an old sign reading through the history of it and it said, ‘Fix it Up. Don’t Tear it Down.’  And it’s like, I see, they’re fixing Hyde Park up and not tearing it down, but we’re still not going to maintain and have it like it was, you know?”

Still, the streets of Hyde Park cultivated not only Washington’s deepening appreciation of visual art, but his lasting friendships with Chicago creative within and without Savemoney. When Vic Mensa, Kami, Towkio, and Noname were getting serious about their emceeing and musical talents, they turned to Nikko for his visual skill.

“They started taking music seriously at the same time I started taking art seriously, whatever that means,” he laughs. “It started with Kami and Towkio. They made a song called ‘scrape money.’ I didn’t know what I was doing,  I just made something in a square and people thought it was cool and really liked it. I worked with Chance, not on an album or mix covers, but, other projects…we all just work together. People always ask where I get clients from. Luckily for me, my friends were pursuing other things that they needed artwork for. So it’s tight.”

The design work kicked off Washington’s popularity and has since complemented his status as a sought-after freelance artist.

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The Art of Things

There’s a quote that has been stuck in Nikko’s head for the past few days: “You are what you do everyday.” 

“My friend Eric Montanez told me this. Best quote I’ve heard. I don’t know if he made that up––probably didn’t,” he laughs. “But since he told me, shout out to Eric!”

Washington’s response speaks to his refusal to be stagnant or complacent. “That stuck to me so much, because if you’re a freelancer, drop out of school, [not working], and you want to pursue this and you’re not in the studio or something to better your career everyday, then, that’s not really who you are. That’s existing.”

Simply existing is not a fit for his ambitions. Since the age of eight, Washington had a natural talent and interest in drawing. His mother and uncle, who are also artists, recognized and nurtured this gift––and his mother got him involved in Gallery 37, a venue that provides space for youth, families, and adults to participate in innovative art programs.

“It was [one of] the most amazing art programs in Chicago. I remember meeting a bunch of like-minded people and artists in Chicago from all over…It was my first time seeing that my work can be appreciated and sold. It was crazy. We got money to be in the gallery––they paid us to do art. That was ill to me.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, known for his abstract painting and coded messages, broadened Washington’s sense of how far art can travel. “He was like the art version of Tupac. He [was] with Andy Warhol making pieces and doing a whole bunch of cool ass shit.”

Washington uses a variety of tools: spray, oil and acrylic paints, graffiti markers, graphite pencils. Sometimes he’ll introduce a piece of vinyl or paper, creating collages that spark conversations around police brutality, human structures, and Black life seen and studied. The vibrant yellows, reds, and blues are attractive, but can take you to places dark, current, exploratory and futuristic.

“I’m precise in my paintings too, but I like to be free in my paintings. That’s just kind of the dichotomy of my work and how I get to be different.”

It’s this freedom that ignites Washington’s vision and process. “I really like to make my own rules up. I know I probably do a lot of things wrong, but that’s okay. It works for me. There are so many ways to paint, so many techniques that you can start with that’ll change the direction of your piece. Good or bad––all of that is subjective.”

The work is intentionally indirect. “It’s for everybody, just because I’m talking about this from this perspective doesn’t mean you can’t relate to it in a different way. I really like when people come up to me with different things that I didn’t even think about. ”

He recalls an instance that introduced him to a new way of seeing a particular piece.

“I did this red woman and I was kind of free and loose with it, and there was a little bit of a drip on some of the red. Someone walked up to me and was like, ‘Are you talking about menstruation?’ I said, ‘No, but now that you mentioned it to me, that’s all I can see, and it makes so much sense if I was.’ But I wasn’t. I was talking about the fierceness of this particular woman in the piece. She was like a deity. It was wild. But that would be a whole other layer if I was talking about that.”

Lately, Washington’s brush has been drawn to body and structure. He directs my attention to an unfinished painting that exposes the detailed insides of a skeleton-faced figure. As with most of his human creations, facial features remain obscure, inviting viewers to search beyond the known and into something more. Something possibly deeper.

“The face already has so many emotions in it. Just take the Mona Lisa and how that piece is famous for her expression. Not the background. Not the foreground. Not the color. Just her face. So that already has so much weight into it. So, what I’m doing now, is doing without defining the face […] absent of that, what else can you see? What can you find without me [giving] you tell-tale signs?,” he challenges.

A lesson from a former professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that Washington has kept with him is the process of creating the background and foreground simultaneously. This method contributes to his free and layered strokes, where one component may gain his attention for a moment but the entirety of the composition is forming at the same time.

“I’m carving, adding and taking away. It’s forever changing,” he says. “The strokes and the weights, different sizes and frequencies of the lines, all [stem] from where I want you to move in the piece and where I want the eye to go, which is everywhere or not in more than one spot. That’s how I build depth or guide people’s eyes through the piece. It’s really me. It’s really my mind and how I compose and see it being complete. That doesn’t mean that every mark has to be on there for it to be done. It has to have a variation of strokes and weights.”

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The Bad Sleep Well

In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, the novelist and social critic James Baldwin wrote on mass culture and the artist: “Art and ideas come out of the passion and torment of experience: it is impossible to have a real relationship to the first, if one’s aim is to be protected from the second.”

Though abstract, Washington’s works don’t shy away from the currents of reality. For him, the times can’t be ignored.

“I’m not a person who’s very vocal about many issues, or what I may be going through,” he notes. “I’d rather put in the work.” 

His most recent exhibit, 2017’s “The Bad Sleep Well,” was a conceptual regurgitation, a year and a half of internal emotion and social unrest released on canvas.

It was rooted in the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Washington was in class during the trial of officer Darren Wilson, and remembers he and a few other non-white classmates were the only students making work about social issues.

“When I go home from my utopia of class, I see black bodies in the street. I see notifications from CNN about the case on my phone while in school. So for me to not make work about anything involving something that I know, [being] a young man, myself, that could have easily been somebody that I know, or me… it would just seem to be unfair.”

While students focused inward, Washington was determined to create work that was “broader than just me, but addressing what was happening at the time. [The Bad Sleep Well] is also imagining wherever Darren Wilson is, George Zimmerman, wherever those people are having a great sleep and me being supremely bothered by this, you know? To be honest, it’s not even about sleep. It’s about consciousness and morality.”

These themes are part of what draws him to artists like Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Kadir Nelson, and Glenn Ligon.

“I admire them all because they’re looking at the Black experience through different lenses and techniques,” he says. “Wiley does these monumental pieces [involving] everyday black people in [old European scenes], highlighting them in these dramatic lights, making them kings. It’s very beautiful. Kerry James Marshall, and the way these artists use their colors. Their compositions, subject matter,  and the figures in the work. That’s really what inspires me and pushes how I can depict my reality in a different light.” 

But Washington isn’t one to force-feed messages and massage our perspective to meet his. It’s not his style. Instead, his work presents a mixture of what travels through his mind, leaving the observer to reach their own conclusion. He makes it clear that his goal is not to be boxed in as a political artist, but to make work that is expressive, meaningful, and capable of evoking feelings in others.

“I’m not trying to give anybody a history lesson or directly educate anybody,” he confirms. “I try to get people to look at the piece subjectively, and you come up with your own feelings from the piece. You look at a piece and see blood splattered all over it, okay, you see that.  But if you look at it and start to see what I’m really talking about, you, regardless of color, can see the phrases that I’m putting in there and see [or ask] ‘okay, why is this there? Why do you have an image of a police target that they actually sell online crumbled up? Why are you doing these things?’”

“I’m an artist. That’s all I want to be known for,” he continues. “If I want to do furniture, tapestry, movies, screen painting, fashion, visual communications, I can do it under the moniker of an artist. That makes me able to do whatever I want. As long as my work has a lasting impact on people, is well-respected for what it is, whether I’m here or dead.”

Looking to the future he adds: “I’m nowhere near where I want to go. Not even just career-wise, but with the pieces themselves and where I truly see them.  I’m excited to keep painting to see where I can go.”

Roderick Sawyer contributed reporting.

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