Redefining Blackness: Nichole Washington
Visual artists examine how they are redefining Blackness
Photographer, mixed media artist; New York City
Nichole Washington is a photographer, painter and designer who has created her own symbolic language to explore and express her identity. She uses her art to transcend the stereotypes, unrealistic expectations and violence that have been weaponized to marginalize Black women. Her artistic inspirations come from African art, sci-fi/fantasy and her own challenges, and translate to creations that center the Black woman, whom Malcolm X famously called “the most disrespected … most unprotected … most neglected person in America.”
The Undefeated spoke with Washington about social and racial justice through art, mental health in the Black community and how much responsibility artists bear to redefine Blackness.
How do you redefine Blackness through your artwork?
I think that my goal is to really just share my personal truths in hopes to expand how people see Blackness.
A lot of my work is about female empowerment and women being in charge of their spaces, but my work also has what some people would call an Afrofuturistic style, and I take a lot of inspiration from comic books. As a Black woman, I’ve often felt – especially when I was growing up – boxed-in by people’s limited definitions of my identity, whether it be the way that people thought a Black woman should wear their hair, or should dress, or should speak.
So, I like to create these portraits where the subjects are made into superheroine characters: Sometimes I change the skin color or do things with the hair. I’m trying to break out of those boundaries, and I believe [my] spirit is Black and I’m a Black woman, so however I express myself is going to be Black regardless of other people’s ideas of what that means.
Many of your pieces consist of photographs you’ve taken of Black women on which you then paint symbols and images to, in your words, “blend the layers between real and imagined.” What’s behind that process?
I see my work kind of as a collaboration. First and foremost, I take inspiration from Black women, because growing up I had a strong presence of Black women in my life. I was raised by my mom and my sister.
I like to then take that inspiration and that aesthetic and those ideas further and create these images that I wished I saw when I was growing up. I was really interested in fantasy – unicorns or cartoons with characters in space – and I didn’t often see young Black people in those images.
So I try to create these images, but it is rooted in real identities. Being connected to Black people is very important to me.
Very often in the world of art and photography, I feel like people want you to speak about either Black history or Black hardship. While, especially right now, there are real struggles that Black people face, those aren’t the only things going on in our lives. Even though Black people in America have this shared common history, we all also have such individual and unique experiences. I feel like too often it can be very hard for Black artists to create works that are just about their unique experience. So I dig very deep into my personal world, being rooted in my Black identity but also digging into this fantasy word that comes from my own personal experience.
In the future, I hope Black artists can be looked at for our individual qualities or the art that we create and not necessarily our race, or that we don’t have to bring the entire Black narrative with us, because that’s impossible for one artist to do.
You’ve talked publicly about your struggles with depression and anxiety, and the growth you’ve experienced as a result of therapy. How important is overcoming the stigma against mental health care that is held by so many Black people?
That’s so important to me. Often, growing up in my community, when you would talk about mental health – somebody being depressed or seeing a therapist – that was always seen as white people’s issues, or something’s wrong with you if you see a therapist or you have depression. In reality, of course Black people have a lot going on and a lot that we have to figure out.
So I feel like it’s so important to normalize mental health issues and getting help for them. That is very present in my work, but it’s not always obvious. In some of the work, you’ll see the brushstrokes being very strong and bold or scratchy, and that’s me kind of trying to work something out, but also I like to think of my work as creating a very protective space. That’s something I’ve had to create for myself in order for me to transform and heal – going deeper within myself so that I can create this barrier between me and the outside world so that everyone’s projections aren’t seeping so deeply into myself.
Shapeshifter is one of several pieces you’ve done with snake imagery. What does that animal represent for you and how do its characteristics play into your depictions of Blackness?
I’ve started doing a lot of work with snakes, especially during this time. I see snakes as these very transformative animals – it’s something about the shedding of the skin – I feel like that’s kind of the time that we’re in now. It’s like we’re shedding and evolving as humans.
I also think it’s a really interesting moment for Black people because not only are other people who are not Black seeing us in a broader spectrum, but I think we’re seeing each other. We’re seeing that we don’t all think the same – just because someone’s Black doesn’t mean they’re just like me or grew up just like me.
I made the work Shapeshifter because I think the character in that image is shape-shifting, and that’s OK … you don’t have to be the same as you were a year ago or a month ago. Sometimes you have to change and shed your skin and evolve. I think that is really important when thinking about Blackness because, growing up in America, we see so very little of ourselves projected back at us. Even for myself, I’ve had to question – and other people have questioned – my Blackness because of the way that I talk or the way that I wear my hair. I’ve had to reclaim my Blackness so many times and realize that it isn’t about how I talk or wear my hair – it just is. I am Black in my spirit and it is who I am.
I hope people can see Shapeshifter and know that it’s OK to transform and change and evolve.
On Instagram, you did a giveaway of a print of Shapeshifter to raise awareness about the murder of Breonna Taylor. How does art play into the protest movement for equality and police reform?
I did the giveaway because that was the way that I felt I could contribute, along with the other things that I do. I asked [the contestants] to raise awareness by doing things like calling [politicians] and signing petitions, and then I chose a person to give the print to. I really just wanted to use whatever I had to help the movement because I felt strongly about what happened. It was an injustice that we needed to fight, and that was me using what I could.
I do think that art can be very powerful, especially if somebody feels something and is able to transform that and make art and put it out there. At the same time, I don’t want artists to feel pressured to be able to describe this moment right now. I see so many things that are like, ‘It’s an artist’s job to tell the truth,’ or ‘People should be making art about what’s happening right now,’ and I feel like right now my art is helping me to heal. All that’s happening is really difficult and I can look to my art as a place to heal and to try to make sense. Making sense of this moment is going to take a while, you know what I mean? I could take a photo of somebody that has been killed and make art from that, and if somebody feels inspired to do that, they should, but for me it’s a little bit of a slower process. Art and activist movements do go hand in hand, but that is going to look very different [from artist to artist]. I hope that artists will do what feels right for them.
Esteemed Sis is a piece you did in 2017, and you’ve linked it to your attempts to move beyond your art education. In school, were you taught to downplay your Blackness and is there significance to the model’s pose?
I often like to pose my subjects with their hand under the chin as a way to express self-esteem – they’re lifting their own head up. It’s a pose that can be seen in a lot of my work.
I was never told to play down my Blackness at all. If anything, I was encouraged to talk about my identity, but I will say that in school I didn’t learn about a lot of Black photographers, you know? I did notice that most of the photographers that we were learning about were white, so when it came to me creating my thesis project, I felt very conflicted. I was wanting to talk about my identity, but I felt like I didn’t have a lot of support. My teachers didn’t have a lot of recommendations of Black artists. Now that I’ve learned so much about so many different Black artists, I know I could have been using all of these examples.
Esteemed Sis is when I first started creating my symbols in my artwork.
The Keepers depicts what you’ve described as two “badass cyborg women.” This piece seems darker than your other works, both in tone and the more sparse use of your symbols. And what does the title mean?
I said that?!? I have to remember to be more eloquent on Instagram!
When I create, I often will get inspired, and I’ll create, then I’ll think about afterward what that means for me, then maybe I’ll change or add. It was a little bit darker, and the work I made in 2018, which is when that piece was created, was darker. You probably can’t tell from the image, but in that piece, there are more symbols beyond the black … there’s some purple symbols.
The title The Keepers means that those two subjects are the protectors of that space – you have to get through them before you can enter into the world behind them. Since then, a lot of my work has been about being protective. You’ll see a handprint a lot in my work too, and that is a part of my personal story as someone who is a survivor of abuse. I constantly feel the need to protect myself.
I think, too, that this idea of Blackness is not something that you can just take and rearrange. This is just my unique story and I want to engage people, but I also want them to be a little bit scared, like, ‘Back up!’
How does African art inspire your work?
I’m so inspired by African art. The African American experience is so interesting, and I talk about this a lot with friends. Because of our history, many of us don’t know the origins of what exactly we come from, but it’s going to naturally come out because [Africa] is where we are from!
That’s also a part of my symbol-making. I’m really inspired by Adinkra symbols, but I don’t feel like I can just take those symbols for my own because I didn’t grow up in West Africa. I could study it and talk about [the meaning] behind those symbols, but it’s not my upbringing.
African American experience often [exists] in this space that is not white American, but we also didn’t grow up on the African continent, but it’s just in our nature to express ourselves in a very similar way. I think that is why my works have this kind of sci-fi quality to them, but it’s very African-influenced. Sci-fi might not be the right word; it’s like a fantasy quality with African influence. That’s a part of me expressing my identity as an African American in this space in between worlds or in between countries.
Some of the African influence is very literal – many of my symbols look very similar to Adinkra symbols – but a lot of it is very natural because I’m a Black woman.