Gods take many different forms in Nikko Washington’s work. They’re athletes, portrayed as whimsical creatures armored with strength, perseverance and commitment to an almost impossible ideal: to become the best. They’re mythological heroes. They can also be regular folk like you and me. His subjects transcend individuality and in some cases even humanity. “Sports heroes are larger than life,” says Washington. “The players become idols; they represent qualities, like characters in a myth.” But “For the Old Gods and the New,” a solo exhibition of new paintings by the Chicago-based artist, doesn’t simply pay homage to Black athletes, it creates room for fresh insights into the roles of myth, folklore and heroism in contemporary American culture. To him, painting is about emotional communication. And as he provides the tools to connect the dots, the viewing experience could mean rising to an almost higher level of consciousness, emotional intelligence and collective responsibility—if you look hard enough that is.
The ball of yarn starts unraveling from the beginning, with Washington particularly focusing on stories brought to America by enslaved Africans that have irrevocably shaped American value systems. A good example is the Uncle Remus stories, featuring a fictional character from Southern folklore, that was popularized by the works of Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist and author, in the late nineteenth century. Harris created a series of stories often called “Uncle Remus Tales,” that involved talking animals (like Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear) and imparting moral lessons. Despite being a symbol of African-American folklore and storytelling in the American South, Uncle Remus has faced criticism for perpetuating racial stereotypes especially as myths and folktales are retold and adapted over time.
From there, Washington delves into the concept of heroism, both in the context of African folklore and the American sports industry. The artist, also an avid boxer, knows firsthand how much sports icons have to overcome in order to make it to the top. Sadly, they’re often to be thwarted or reduced to oversimplified personas. Similarly, this pattern also reflects the shaping of the cultural identity of Black Americans within our contemporary society and the context of the majoritarian white gaze. Prompting contemplation about autonomy and authenticity, the exhibition raises questions about the freedom of heroes—in sports and in life—to be their authentic selves. How much are they willing to sacrifice? For how long?
Sparking fascinating anthropological reflections on the very core of human identity, Washington weaves a tapestry of ethical quandaries. By drawing on mythic and symbolic elements from folklore and sports, Washington’s archetypal figures represent broader themes and values thus allowing viewers to empathize and connect with them on a deeper, more universal level. Through vividly colored oil paintings and black-and-white drawings, Washington tells multilayered stories that go beyond the surface narrative. Think symbolism, historical references, and visual metaphors. In this recent body of work: ethereal dancers with wings reminiscent of angels and deities, NFL players that bring cave drawings to mind, and Jesse Owens, the record-setting African-American track and field athlete who transcended sports and triumphed over discrimination, coexist. They all nod to Washington’s ideas about gods, old and new, and making up his very own out of sports figures and found imagery. Seeking to uncover deeper and more subjective visions of Black America’s legacy, the artist is on his way to reshape human identity and potential one step at a time. The path is long and thorny but he’s fully prepared to walk it—for his sake and ours.
“Nikko Washington: For the Old Gods and the New” is on view at Kavi Gupta, 835 West Washington through January 27, 2024.