Video artist Nanette Boileau grew up in Rock Hill, Missouri, entertained by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world's leading mixed martial arts organization. That fascination led her to incorporate the UFC in her Ph.D. and inspired her to take a contemporary look at St. Louis athletes pursuing their dreams as fighters.
Her ongoing exhibit “American Dreamers: Unalienable Rights” brings together three people dreaming of sports glory: a professional wrestler, a female boxer and a mixed martial arts fighter. In a series of intense videos, the gallery – held at the William and Florence Schmidt Art Center in Belleville, Illinois – allows the viewer to feel like they’re stepping into the ring with these athletes.
Despite the exhibit’s title, it’s not focused on immigration or the Bill of Rights. So what’s behind the name? It began when Boileau sought to understand the drive and interest of the fighters and asked a local trainer what is appealing about the sport
“Because for me to get into a cage and to put myself in that [physical] situation just seems scary,” she said. “And the response from the trainer was, ‘Well, it’s their American dream.’ So that's kind of how this all started; [looking at] how do we attain dreams? And how do we go about it?”
Boileau joined Monday’s St. Louis on the Air with host Sarah Fenske alongside some of the athletes she featured: boxer Debra Rush and mixed martial arts fighter Fahrudin “Freddy” Kostjerevac.
Kostjerevac began his journey in the mixed martial arts world as a kid after he migrated to the U.S. from Bosnia. He started by learning taekwondo to help practice discipline. He said he struggled with team sports growing up, but MMA allowed him to experience the best of both worlds.
“MMA was one of those things that I felt like it was me versus me,” he explained. “You think [MMA] is not a team sport, but it really is … [and] you're in charge of your own team. You're like the spokesperson of your team.”
He credits his trainers, nutritionists and overall support system for ultimately helping him in the ring.
“Basically, when you see a fighter in the cage, it's like a video game [with] somebody behind the remote saying, ‘Throw a jab, throw a kick,’” Kostjerevac explained. “Because you're so caught up with the emotion [and] caught up in the intensity of it. That's why so many fighters go back and study film on themselves, because they can't see what's happening in the fight.”
Rush added to Kostjerevac’s point. “You kind of just zone into what you have to do,” he said. “You don't have room for emotion in there … So it's kind of nice, like Freddy said, having that thought process that you're in control. Which is why I love boxing in the first place. Like, it pushes you past your mental and physical abilities to see what you're really made of ... so getting in the ring is like a test or a validation of who you are [or] who you're trying to be.”
For the exhibit, Boileau followed Kostjerevac as he trains for his fight with Shamrock FC in St. Louis. Images of Freddy’s training, weigh-ins and fight are displayed on individual monitors in the corners of an “unsanctioned” MMA cage, where viewers are required to take off their shoes before entering the cage.
The local MMA and boxing scene is relatively small, especially compared to those on the East and West coasts; and female boxers are even harder to come by. Women’s boxing began in St. Louis in 1904 as part of the modern Olympic Games, which were held during the World’s Fair.
“In St. Louis, amateur boxing is very small and not in the limelight. So it's really a big deal to have amateur boxing [featured] anywhere,” Rush said. She explained the close-knit community often collaborates by sparring at each other’s gyms, and that can include competing with the same people the fighters train with.
In the “American Dreamers” exhibit, Rush is displayed on a split screen in a way in which viewers are placed in the middle of a women’s boxing match and are eye-to-eye with the amateur boxer.
So what’s it like being hit by a girl?
“It hurts. Girls hit hard. No matter what anybody says, girls hit hard,” Rush said. “If somebody says, ‘Do you hit like a girl?’ I'd say, ‘God, I hope so.' Because they are so aggressive; female athletes in general, I think, are just so aggressive.”
“You're not gonna see two girls just sitting there; you'll see girls exchanging combinations. I’d probably say that the girls actually put on more of a fight than the guys actually do in most of the fights that you watch. That's in MMA and boxing, too,” Kostjerevac added.
Listen to the full discussion:
What: Nanette Boileau: American Dreamers: Unalienable Rights
When: Now through Oct. 10, 2019
Where: The William and Florence Schmidt Art Center (2500 Carlyle Ave., Belleville, IL, 62221)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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