Almost a century of ambitious development projects and demographic shifts have transformed neighborhoods across Washington, D.C., in sweeping ways. It is no secret that Highway 295 replaced bustling neighborhoods along the river in Southwest, or that the Capital One Arena occupies several blocks of Chinatown. The roadway and grand sports & entertainment venue replaced city blocks full of homes, schools and businesses, areas that once looked and felt quite different. In both cases, longtime residents saw their communities disrupted and transformed.
A recent artwork by Washington, D.C., artist Terence Nicholson reflects on the personal and collective impacts of neighborhood change. Safety Jacket: A Mourning in Chinatown commemorates the powerful sense of community that developed at the Wah Shing Kung-Fu School, which was located near 7th and H Streets NW from the 1980s to early 2000s. Nicholson studied under the school’s founder, Master Chao Chi Liu, and eventually assisted him with administration and training of other students of traditional martial arts. The school closed in 2016 due to rising rents in the gentrifying Chinatown neighborhood, and he recalls feeling a loss of direction, not knowing where to turn.
Nicholson’s sculpture takes the form of an oversized Kung-Fu uniform shirt, with frog-buttons, upright collar, and arms outstretched on either side. It incorporates dozens of colorful martial arts belts that were left behind after the school closed—literal remnants of the community of practitioners who met and practiced together. The belts are draped vertically on a wire mesh frame and coated in a translucent glaze that gives the work a polished yet weathered appearance. The title of the work is two-pronged. Safety Jacket alludes to the personal sense of security Nicholson derived from his practice of Kung-Fu, while A Mourning in Chinatown conveys the collective sense of loss following the school’s closing.
Rather than dwelling on what was lost, the sculpture reconstitutes the individual belts into a beautiful, powerful new whole. It stands as a reminder that the school lives on in the human bonds it cemented and the strength of spirit it instilled, if not in the bricks and mortar of Chinatown. Nicholson invites us to reflect on processes of loss and healing. As he describes it, the sculpture is “a means of mourning not only the loss of my school, but the legacy of the Chinatown that I knew growing up in Washington, D.C., in the late ’70s and early ’80s. This piece represents a letting go of an era in D.C. history for many.” At its core, the sculpture bears witness to the passing of an era. It serves as a vehicle of personal and collective healing, helping to process change, acknowledge the past and face the future. Safety Jacket brings us along on Nicholson’s own journey, a powerful beacon of resilience and hope.