Hyde Park native brings ‘Battle Royale’ installation to WNDR Museum

The New Vanguard and the museum partnered for “Creatives of Color,” a rotating exhibition spotlighting four Chicago artists. Nikko Washington’s installation highlights the dehumanization of famous boxers.

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Nikko Washington stands inside his art installation, “Battle Royale: The New Vanguard Installation 01,” which is about how boxers are “glorified and dehumanized through the media,” according to the exhibit’s description, at the WNDR Museum in the West Loop.

Nikko Washington stands inside his art installation “Battle Royale,” about how boxers are “glorified and dehumanized through the media,” which is now on display through March 20 at the WNDR Museum in the West Loop.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nikko Washington grew up practicing martial arts. The 29-year-old Hyde Park native spent 10 years training, which he says gave him discipline and hand-eye coordination.

His painting style, he says, is deeply influenced by his training as a martial artist.

The installation is reflective of his upbringing and the professional fighters he — and the country — looked up to.

Washington, a painter by trade, is part of The New Vanguard, a Chicago collective for artists of color. A partnership between The New Vanguard and WNDR produced “Creatives of Color,” a rotating installation. Four artists will show their works at the museum.

The color palette of his Hyde Park neighborhood inspired his artwork growing up. He got a start in designing art for musician friends and recently worked with Chance the Rapper, which led to one of his paintings being shown in the Art Institute.

Washington chose to blanket his first-ever installation, “Battle Royale,” with a familiar look for him. The walls are painted royal blue, the exact color of his childhood bedroom. The installation features several screens showing clips of famous boxing matches, as well as tributes to the boxers who have been scrutinized throughout their careers.

The installation examines how Black fighters are glorified and dehumanized in the media, the artist said.

Washington married his previous design background with three-dimensional materials to create this installation.

Part of Nikko Washington’s installation, “Battle Royale: The New Vanguard Installation 01” at the WNDR Museum in the West Loop.

A punching bag that appears to have fallen through a gym floor is part of Nikko Washington’s “Battle Royale” installation at the WNDR Museum.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“I went down this path of finding fighters and looking at the warrior complex of traditional heroes and idols in our society that represented more than their sport,” Washington said. “I think as Black athletes, they’re very scrutinized and there’s a huge double standard.”

Boxers like Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson represented more than just their sports, but also the beliefs and controversies surrounding them, he said.

A life-size triangular boxing ring with “The Fight of the Century” written in looming block letters holds court in one corner of the installation, while another corner displays a punching bag that seemingly has fallen through the floor of a gym.

Flashes of the American flag are seen throughout Washington’s installation, hinting toward the famed Black athletes having to represent their country in addition to their sport.

“Especially in the case of Muhammad Ali, he was a hero, but then he was frowned upon because he didn’t want to fight for a country that wasn’t fighting for him. He was frowned upon for his beliefs when he converted to Islam,” he said.

Clips on the screens in the installation play several of the “fights of the century” that captivated the country at the time, like Mike Tyson’s 1988 bout with Larry Holmes.

Washington leans on his extensive knowledge of the history of martial arts and legendary fighters throughout the installation, while the rest of his space focuses on the recurring themes of power imbalance, religion and race.

WNDR Museum, which specializes in multidimensional contemporary installations with mixed-media, will display Washington’s installation through March 20.

Three other artists, each unique in their installation’s medium, will cycle through for the remainder of the partnership, each getting eight weeks in the space. The next will focus on fashion, from artist Alex Carter.

Pilar McQuirter, co-founder of The New Vanguard, said the partnership with WNDR came about from a mutual desire to add artists of color to Chicago museums.

“There is such a strong group of artists and craftsmen [here],” she said. “There’s a network of creative resilience and resources that are so unrecognized on a national level. So our interest with The New Vanguard is to take Chicago to the world.”

David Allen, the museum’s creative director, said Washington’s installation is “powerful” and the museum was excited to help uplift the artists’ voices with the partnership.

“I think a lot of creators of color are responsible for the popular cultural narrative that all of us engage with and we benefit from,” Allen said. “So I think this is a way to show that this work is not just a commodity, but it holds emotional power.”

While Washington’s installation began at the start of Black History Month, The New Vanguard hopes to create opportunities for artists of color throughout the year instead of just in one month.

“I think we are past the stage of representation for tokenization sake,” McQuirter said. “We’re now in a space of like, ‘OK, we got that, we got that, so what’s next?’ How do we create sustainable careers for creatives of color that aren’t just waiting for them to get their bag in February?”

Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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