This article was sponsored by Woodford Reserve

Surrounded by darkness, a holy glow fills the room. Repeated images of an iconic boxer from Louisville, KY., with his trademark boyish grin, cloaked in a gold head garb, are arranged to form a cross in a work entitled Christ Muhammad. He’s in the space alone, except for the spectators who come and go. Yet, simultaneously, his light is bright enough to illuminate all those around him.

Multidisciplinary artist Nikko Washington is the first Chicago based artist featured in the new Legacy of Now series by Brown-Forman, parent company of Woodford Reserve and presenting partner of Nikko’s artist spotlight. The series honors artists with a unique focus across visual arts and fashion mediums who are “creating for the now.” Brown-Forman has invested in each artist through curated experiences for the broader community to celebrate with them. From a private dinner, to a celebration event and an artist panel discussion, this series is dedicated to engaging the creative community within Chicago.

As a Hyde Park native, Washington grew up watching and idolizing many of the Black boxing greats, studying the poetry and fluidity of their every move. Each noteworthy boxer has conquered their opponents in some of the most monumental—and sometimes consequential—clashes outside of the ring, life’s “Battle Royale.”

“I love that term, the fight of the century, because it’s such a packed quote, for more ways than just in the boxing ring. Each century, we have a fight; whether it’s still battling systematic racism, still battling oppression, COVID or the financial crisis. We’re always battling something,” Washington told The TRiiBE. “It’s a theme and it’s a throughline in my work that I’ve been doing for the past year, relating sports idols to Greek mythology. When they become great, it becomes larger than the sport. They become icons. They represent so much more than just being an athlete.”

Although he’s a self-described traditional painter, Washington incorporated visual and physical works into his pieces. In doing so, he tapped into his roots in martial arts, which he began practicing at five years old. As he took on painting at a later age, he applied the techniques of hand-eye coordination, breath control and gameplay into his craft.

“I think I’m very like a physical painter. I move around, and I fight with the canvas. I push and pull. Everything doesn’t have to be so rigid,” Washington said. “Control, breathing, pace and stamina. I think the art world and my career has always been a marathon. Being meticulous and having a game plan is something that you see in the ring. You have a game plan for your opponent and you might have to adjust on the fly. I think that’s a lot like life.”

Credit: Michael Mendoza
Credit: Michael Mendoza

Throughout the month of March, The New Vanguard hosted a launch party, as well as a panel discussion where Washington will discuss the inspiration he drew from boxing and martial arts techniques. These events build upon a multitiered community engagement component of the Legacy of Now series that brings community together to celebrate the artists as well as the fundraising efforts towards a Vanguard Legacy Grant that will fund Black and brown creatives in need.

In addition to the curated programming throughout the series, Brown-Forman is contributing to The Vanguard Legacy Grant, which is intended to support emerging creatives in Chicago. This effort to invest in Chicago’s creative community has been kicked off by Brown-Forman with a goal of driving community donations throughout key events. Fundraising efforts will continue throughout the duration of the Legacy of Now program, in the end, select applicants will receive a stipend to continue fueling their craft.

“I think it’s incredibly important because, as you can see, throughout our world now, if we don’t talk about it, it’ll be erased,” Washington said about the legacies of Black athletes. “There are Black athletes that achieved great things in every sport. Our narrative is really important.”

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.