It’s more poignant than ever that the New Museum’s extraordinary exhibition of sculptor Nari Ward’s work, which runs through May 26 of this year, is called “We the People.” The artist himself, it has been reported, wanted it to be called “Hunger Cradle” (1996) after one of his signature sprawling pieces of sculpture made from found objects. That piece is on the second floor of the exhibition, which is being shown on three floors in total. “Nari Ward: We the People,” per the museum’s press release, “…will feature over 30 sculptures, paintings, videos and large-scale installations from throughout Ward’s twenty-five-year career, highlighting his status as one of the most important and influential sculptors working today.”
“We the People” is on the third floor. It occupies an otherwise stark white wall. Multi colored shoelaces spill out of specially drilled holes that, because of their strategic placement, spell out in familiar calligraphic lettering the first three words of the United States Constitution. That it is the center and title of this exhibition at a time when the United States’ vision of itself as a beautiful mosaic has been rocked to its core, is deeply affecting for the viewer. For over two years, social and political discourse has been overtaken by the far-right’s manifest xenophobia a wall to keep out Central American asylum seekers. Also, for American society to remain as monochromatically white as the wall from which the laces in this installation emerge.
Ward didn’t create the piece in response to the rhetoric of Donald Trump or his right-wing cohorts. He actually created it in 2011; a more hopeful time in the country’s history when America was being governed by its first African-descended president. The shoelaces were meant to be a nod to urban America and Harlem in particular, where sneakers slung over power lines is a ubiquitous sight. It isn’t lost on the artist however, the broadening of the piece’s symbolism at this time in history. Says Ward via email, “When I first made this work I could never have anticipated that my attempt to both humanize and inspire conversation about what this text means would be so urgent to consider each of our roles in defining the future of America.”
Ward was born in Jamaica, but has been a resident of Harlem for many years, where he both lives and works at a former firehouse on 141st Street. His 1995 piece “Super Stud Salt Table” is the only work in the exhibition that overtly evokes his West Indian heritage with its use of plantains, pieces of fish and salt laid out to look like sand of the beach. The work also surprisingly carries a slight aroma of the sea.
Most of Ward’s works evoke the pre-gentrified Harlem of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. The materials he uses are mostly taken directly from the Harlem of that time, from discarded carpets, linoleum, grocery bags, children’s clothing, soda bottles, strollers, old radiators and printers, tires, etc. The very fabric of working class life IS central in Ward’s work.
In his remarks at a recent press preview for the exhibition, New Museum’s Edlis Neeson Artistic Director Massimiliano Giani declared, “Ward was part of a generation that emerged in the 1990s which made Western art a much richer, cosmopolitan and welcoming place. He was part of a generation of artists that made art a multicultural experience and complicated the language and nuances of contemporary art. In particular, Ward contributed by transforming exhibitions into total environments in which sculpture and installation were fused into dramatic experiences.”
Three hundred and sixty-five discarded baby strollers are used in Ward’s stunning 1695 square foot comment on the AIDS, crack cocaine, and homeless crises of the ’80s, “Amazing Grace” (1993). As with other installations, he uses audio in “Amazing Grace;” this time the music of Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn of the same name which brought hope and solace to countless working class Blacks when they were at their lowest.
Ward’s “Apollo/Poll” also directly speaks to the intersection of the U.S. political system and everyday lived experience of Harlem’s Black and Brown working class people. It is a recreation of the “Apollo” sign that sits outside the world-renowned cultural landmark; a glowing emblem of Black working class Americans’ vice-like grip on global popular culture. The lights in Ward’s piece alternately flash as “Apollo” then “Poll.” Ward said, via email, “The APOLLO sign became a way to create a dialogue between Harlem’s famous amateur night audience voting for a winner as entertainment, and the absurdity of a reality TV personality getting elected to the highest office in this country.” Like the majority of Ward’s pieces, it is also in dialogue with history, bringing to mind the poll taxes used by white supremacists prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act to circumvent the right of Blacks’ constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. That same right is currently under attack with the rollback of the Voting Rights Act that began in 2013 and continues to this day.
A fully illustrated catalogue co-published by the New Museum and Phaidon Press accompanies the exhibition. The catalogue includes an interview with Nari Ward conducted by Lowery Stokes Sims, as well as newly commissioned essays on the artist’s work.
For more information, visit www.newmuseum.org.