Nari Ward in New York: The Artist’s First Museum Survey in the City Showcases His Reinvention of Local Found Materials

 

EMPLOYING CARPETS left behind by the previous occupant of his Harlem studio, Nari Ward made an angel. He reinvented the carpets, cutting them down and forming tightly rolled segments, combining them with found plastic bags, plastic bottles, springs, wood screws, and rope, to create an airy, open-weave structure. He named the work “Carpet Angel.” In 1993, Ward installed the dramatic mixed-media sculpture at the New Museum. Suspended from the ceiling, the angel levitated.

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Carpet Angel,” 1992 (carpet, plastic bags, plastic bottles, carpet runner, springs, wood screws, rope, 230 x 238 x 36 / 584.2 x 604.5 x 91.4 cm), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Twenty-six years later, the New Museum is presenting “Nari Ward: We the People,” the artist’s first-ever museum survey in New York City, where he has lived and worked his entire career. The exhibition includes more than 40 works dating from 1992 to 2018. Sculptures, paintings, and video are installed throughout the museum on the second, third, and fourth floors. Works are even displayed in the museum’s stairwell.

His most iconic works are on view, including “Carpet Angel” (1992); a room-sized installation composed of baby strollers and fire hoses called “Amazing Grace” (1993); “Hunger Cradle” (1996), a web of found objects he reinvents with each installation by adding elements native to the new space; and “We the People” (2011), the exhibition’s title work, made with more than 1,000 colored shoelaces spelling out the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

For nearly three decades, Ward has used language and a variety of sculptural forms and installations to explore racism, migration, and assumptions about identity and belonging—issues close to home and pervasive throughout the world. The artist works with objects and materials he finds around the city, elevating and reimagining them. Imbued with spirit and history, he makes eclectic new works that speak to gentrification in Harlem, the the legacy of slavery, and erosion of democratic norms.

He has made works built around grocery carts, oil drums, a grandfather clock, a piano, and an elevated tactical police tower. Others have been assembled with large quantities of oven pans, baseball bats, bricks, bottles, and keys.

For “Amazing Grace” (1993) he collected about 300 abandoned baby strollers, many found in vacant lots. Occupying an entire gallery, the dimly lit installation was created at the height of the HIV/AIDS and drug epidemics that devastated many communities across the nation in the early 1990s, including Harlem.

“I think I was just trying to take stock of what was going on in the community, and these baby strollers became an element for an open-ended narrative with which I felt people could fill in the details, right? You know, it could be about death or it could be about future potentiality,” Ward says in the exhibition catalog.

“A lot of times when I was going through these empty lots I would see four or five of them because so-called marginalized individuals used them to gather bottles and cans. Since they were part of the landscape, I wondered how to make their situation more visible and how they were being pushed to the edges of society. The work was also about me connecting my interest in these objects to the community.”

This transformation, the manner in which Ward invests meaning in discarded items, is the central strength his practice,

“I think I was just trying to take stock of what was going on in the community, and these baby strollers became an element for an open-ended narrative with which I felt people could fill in the details. It could be about death or it could be about future potentiality.” — Nari Ward


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). From left, “Sky Juice” (1993), “Iron Heavens” (1995), “Blue Window, Brick Vine” (1993), and “Savior” (1996). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

BORN IN ST. ANDREW, JAMAICA, Ward moved to the United States at age 12. He earned an undergraduate degree from City University of New York, Hunter College (1989) and an MFA from City University of New York, Brooklyn College (1992), where William T. Williams was an influential mentor. In the catalog, Ward says the professor and painter introduced him to the Studio Museum in Harlem and its artist-in-residence program (which Williams started). Ward was accepted into the program and was in residence at the museum (1992-93) during a period when his most poignant works began to emerge, including “Amazing Grace.”

Ward is currently presenting “Scapegoat” (2017), an outdoor installation at Art Omi in Ghent, N.Y. (through Oct. 1, 2020). Although “We the People” at the New Museum ends today, the show lives on in the exhibition catalog, an excellent publication that documents the show and provides insights about Ward’s career and practice.

Fully illustrated, the volume features multiple images of individual works in the show, including detail and installation views (from other venues). Contributions include brief essays by Lauren Haynes, Bennett Simpson, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, who co-curated the exhibition. New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni and Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) also engage in a conversation about Ward.

The Nigerian-born, international curator who died in March, was living in New York City when he met the artist in the late 1980s, through connections with common friends. Ward was a student at Hunter College, who had yet to transition from painting to sculpture. Enwezor was an aspiring writer and poet.

Enwezor says they were a group of “engaged black practitioners in their twenties with a certain commitment to the production of ideas and to challenging the exclusionary context of the artistic milieu in New York—that is to say, white power structures”.

Photographers, writers, and visual artists, they shared immigrant backgrounds and made the rounds of poetry readings, SoHo galleries and Lower East Side “dives.” They attempted to create a collective called Akadbia (Igbo for hand of the sorcerer or medicine man), but it didn’t pan out.

More than a decade later, when Enwezor was artistic director of documenta 11 (2002), he invited Ward to participate in the international exhibition hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany.

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Hunger Cradle,” 1996 (yarn, rope, found material, dimensions variable), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Enwezor went on to serve as artistic director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich and artistic director of the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). During the discussion, Enwezor considers Ward’s work in context with the output of California assemblage artists and Jack Whitten’s sculptures, although he more closely associates the artist’s work with his generational peers, including Leonardo Drew, Terry Adkins (1953-2014), Willie Cole, and Renée Stout. He also invokes Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson, and Oscar Murillo.

Ward has “completely transformed the scale and ambition of installation art,” Enwezor says at the conclusion of the conversation with Gioni. “Nari doesn’t often get credit for this, but with ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Hunger Cradle’ he completely transformed the articulation of space within sculpture and installation.”

“Nari doesn’t often get credit for this, but with ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Hunger Cradle’ he completely transformed the articulation of space within sculpture and installation.” — Okwui Enwezor

The volume also includes an interview with Ward conducted by Lowery Stokes Sims, the art historian and curator emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design who served as executive director (2000-05) and president of the Studio Museum (2006-07). They discuss how the artist managed to establish a collector base early in his career (working with dealer Jeffrey Deitch and through the New Museum organizing visits to Harlem studios for trustees and collectors), how various works came about, and what Sims calls his “metaphorical relationship to materials.”

Among the works he talked about, Ward provided the backstory for “Carpet Angel.”

“I was subletting from this guy who said he was never coming back. He asked me to take care of his paintings but he also had all these carpets on the floor because I think he worked in set design. I didn’t like the carpets but I decided I should make art out of them because they had interesting patterns. The idea came from my interest in sacred spaces and how something that is walked upon could become a shelter of devotion,” said Ward.

“I decided to make a dome from the carpets. I had no concept of how to engineer that, so I made these concentric circles and drilled and nailed with plastic bags. My notion was that at some point it was going to go up, and then I would just kind of put it together to make this beautiful dome. When it went up, I realized that the form was too heavy, but I stuck with it, and this form, which looked like a figure with wings, started to evolve. So I said, okay, this makes sense because the dome is a metaphor for the heavens and this adds a narrative from the heavens.” CT

 

BOOKSHELF
The recently published exhibition catalog, “Nari Ward: We the People,” is fully illustrated and features essays by Lauren Haynes, Bennett Simpson, and Gary Carrion-Murayari, who co-curated the New Museum exhibition, an interview with Nari Ward conducted by Lowery Stokes Sims, and a conversation between New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni and the late Okwui Enwezor. “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed” documents the artist’s mid-career retrospective. Organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the show traveled to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

 


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). Clockwise, from background, “We the People” (2011), “Breathing Panel: Oriented Center” (2015), and “Ground (In Progress) (2015). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Nari Ward on “We the People”: The shoelace piece, “We the People” (2011), has become a really important piece. I wanted to figure out how to create a kind of street memorial, and I was reminded of that urban folk activity of throwing shoes up onto trees or telephone wires. There is a whole range of possible meanings to that gesture: marking gang territory, celebrating graduation—everything from the negative to the affirmative, but nobody really knows. Sometimes it’s just a gesture of fun, frolic, or nonsense. [Initially he thought he’d work with whole shoes and after he removed all the laces, it gave him an idea.] I had all these shoelaces left. And so I said, ‘This is interesting material. It’s a line. It’s also something you learn to tie, so it’s craft material.’ …The shoelaces evolved in a weird way into talking about sculpture because they are all about weightlessness. …I realized that when I embedded the shoelace in the wall, it became a hanging line that suggested upward movement.”

 


From left, NARI WARD, “Trophy,” 1993 (baby stroller, found objects, sugar, and Tropical Fantasy soda, dimensions variable); and NARI WARD, “Iron Heavens,” 1995 (oven pans, iron sterilized cotton, and burnt wooden bats, 140 x 148 x 48 inches / 355.6 x 375.9 x 121.9 cm). | Courtesy New Museum, Photos by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). From left, “Savior” (1996), “Crusader” (2005), and “Sky Juice” (1993). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


From left, NARI WARD, “Crusader,” 2005 (plastic bags, metal, shopping cart, trophy elements, bitumen, chandelier, and plastic containers, 110 x 51 x 52 inches / 279.4 x 129.5 x 132.1 cm). | Collection Brooklyn Museum. Purchased with funds given by Giulia Borghese. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin; and NARI WARD, “Apollo/Poll,” 2017 (steel, wood, vinyl, and LED lights, 360 x 144 x 48 inches / 914.4 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm). | Commissioned by Socrates Sculpture Park, New York. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, and Galleria Continua. Photos courtesy New Museum

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Amazing Grace,” 1993 (approximately 300 baby strollers, fire hoses, dimensions variable), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Detail of NARI WARD, “Amazing Grace,” 1993 (approximately 300 baby strollers, fire hoses, dimensions variable). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). Foreground, “Ground (In Progress) (2015), suspended at center, “Untold” (2013), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Glory,” 2004 (oil barrel, fluorescent and ultraviolet tubes, computer parts, DVD, parrot audio, Plexiglass, fan, camera casing elements, paint cans, cement), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). From left, “Nadir” (2018), “Escape Velocity Blue” (2018), “Resonance” (2018), and “Glory” (2004). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Detail of NARI WARD, “Naturalization Drawing Table,” 2004 (Plexiglass, crenallation table, and INS naturalization application, table: 45 x 51 x 99 inches / 114.3 x 129.5 x 251.5 cm, chair: 34 x 22 x 21 inches / 86.4 x 55.9 x 53.3 cm). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Naturalization Drawing Table,” 2004 (Plexiglass, crenallation table, and INS naturalization application, table: 45 x 51 x 99 inches / 114.3 x 129.5 x 251.5 cm, chair: 34 x 22 x 21 inches / 86.4 x 55.9 x 53.3 cm), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Super Stud,” 1995-2001 (metal studs, Lehman Collection book pages, Sensomatic alarms, salt, codfish, plantains and plastic, dimensions variable), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Exodus,” 1993 (mixed mediums, dimensions variable), “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


From left, NARI WARD, “Safety First,” 2010 (stencil ink and psychological study card on paper); and NARI WARD, “Building Project,” 2010 (stencil ink and psychological study card on paper, 24 1/4 x 20 3/4 inches / 61.6 x 52.7 cm). | Collection Michael Hoeh (2), Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin. Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Nari Ward on “Safety First” and “Building Project”: The benefit of living across the street from a school is that they throw out some amazing stuff. I went through the dumpster and found these psychological study cards from the 1970s. Basically, what they did was show children situations and have them describe what was going on in the photographs based on the child’s own experience. It’s a way for children to be able to take that as a cue. I liked the multiple narratives within these images and the idea of open-ended images that I could open up even more. I blackened out spaces to indicate aspects of life and history that you can never talk about or pieces of a narrative that are never really engaged with.

 


Installation view of NARI WARD, “Spellbound,” 2015 (piano, used keys, Spanish moss, light, and audio and video elements, 521/2 x 60 x 28 inches / 133.4 x 152.4 x 71.1 cm), 9:03 minutes; “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


Detail of NARI WARD, “Spellbound,” 2015 (piano, used keys, Spanish moss, light, and audio and video elements, 521/2 x 60 x 28 inches / 133.4 x 152.4 x 71.1 cm), 9:03 minutes. | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 


From left, NARI WARD, “Homeland Sweet Homeland,” 2012 (cloth, plastic, megaphones, razor wires, feathers, chains, and silver spoons), In collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami. | Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio; and Detail of NARI WARD, “T.P. Reign Bow,” 2012 (wood, blue tarp, brass grommets, zippers, human hair, and taxidermy fox, 224 x 156 x 270 inches / 569 x 396.2 x 685.8 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Nari Ward on “Homeland Sweet Homeland”: The work “features the informational cards my brother, who’s a lawyer, used to give out with the Miranda rights on one side and his business contact on the other.”

 


Installation view of “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 13-May 26, 2019). From left, “Carpet Angel” (1992), “T.P. Reign Bow” (20120, and “Homeland Sweet Homeland” (2012). | Courtesy New Museum, Photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio

 

Descriptions by Nari Ward excerpted from “Hidden in Plain Sight: Nari Ward in Conversation with Lowery Stokes Sims,” published in “Nari Ward: We the People” (2019).