Our Block by Block: Chicago series continues with this feature on artist Nikko Washington.
Born and raised in Chicago, Nikko is one of the city's most talented young painters and multi-media artists. A student of his craft, he studies and takes inspiration from many of the greatest painters past and present—with a focused appreciation for Black artists that reflect his own ideals. Read his interview below carefully and take notes, because he mentions many amazing artists that you may not have heard about in your own often white-washed art history classes. By the end, you may just end up with a few new favorite artists of your own—including Nikko Washington.
First, please introduce yourself. What should everyone know about Nikko Washington?
I’m an artist, designer, and maker born and raised in Chicago.
When did you start painting as a serious profession?
I took up painting seriously when I was 19. I remember my Uncle Calvin asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to be a contemporary artist. Then he replied “Do you know what that means and what it takes?” This stuck with me because I didn't have an answer at the time. I thought I just had to work hard, but what he told me was super important. He told me to do my research. He asked who my favorite painters were, and at the time most of them were all white men—the artists they taught me to study in school. He gave me a book of Black artists such as Robert Colescott, Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam, Emory Douglas, etc. and it truly changed the trajectory of my work.
What drew you to painting over other art forms?
Honestly, I’ve always known I was gonna be an artist. I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. When I was a child I wanted to be a cartoonist, then my focus slowly transitioned into painting and screen printing when I was in high school. It's funny to think I never truly applied myself to anything besides art. I was always told I had a lot of potential in school, but the traditional education system never excited me.
Do you work in any other mediums? I noticed BRWN on your Instagram, is this a brand you run?
I really consider myself a mixed media artist. I truly hate the thought of working with just one media all the time. I think an older way of thinking is that artists should stay in their lane. A painter should be a painter or a sculptor just sculpt, and a fashion designer should just design, etc. I think that is extremely limiting to yourself as an artist and to your creative practice to have a glass ceiling.
I've always been into fashion, I don't consider myself a fashion designer however. I look at BRWN as an art project. For a while I was doing freelance work for musicians, other brands and companies. What I quickly learned freelancing was that at the end of the day, I didn't have the final say. BRWN spawned my need for creative control.
How do you think living in Chicago has influenced your work? Do you think your style would be any different if you lived elsewhere?
Chicago has definitely influenced my work. I grew up a block from a wall where a lot of crews would paint freely. From an early age I was introduced to vibrant colors, and color theory from graffiti. That's something I see a lot of in my work. Chicago just has this energy and style that is so unique. The feeling is nothing like other cities.
Have you experienced prejudices in the art community as a Black man?
The fact that this question is constantly being asked, and that white artists aren't being asked this same question speaks for itself.
Has the larger call for racial justice and equality and protests against police brutality over the last few months influenced your recent work?
I consider my work and process reactionary. I’ve been doing work on police brutality and racial justice since 2014 when Mike Brown was murdered. I was in school at the time, and I just remember that all I would see on my phone was the video over and over again. Yet no one in my class was talking about it. So I made a point to make work to spark the conversation and bring awareness to the issues that my people face on a daily basis. I was a bit jealous for a while that White artists in school could truly make work that was selfish. Work that didn't speak on larger issues, or work that wasn't part of a larger conversation just because of the color of their skin. But now I embrace it, and I realize the artist's role in the fight for justice.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a painter?
Early on, my biggest influence was Jean-Michel Basquiat by far, I was amazed by his work, and his success at such an early age. That's what I was striving for, as I got older I started to be drawn to works by Robert Rauschenberg, Glen Ligon, and Jacob Lawrence. Surprisingly enough, I didn't learn about Kerry James Marshall until his show “Mastery” at the MCA. I was honestly amazed at his work, and still am today. In my opinion he is the greatest living artist we have.
The fight for positive change in this country is unfortunately a marathon, not a sprint. How do you see art, your own and the work of others, playing an ongoing role in the cause?
Art gives feeling a visual, and emotion an aesthetic. Art makes the revolution beautiful. Speaking personally, I am not the strongest writer. I let my voice be heard through my work and my subject matter. I think it’s important to continue to speak up and fight for what you believe in.
What advice do you have for young People of Color trying to find their place and excel in the art world?
I would say create the stories that you feel need to be told, and control the narrative of your work from the start. If we control the narrative, we keep the power of our creativity.