Nari Ward’s new exhibition at the Barnes covers two decades of his work. It serves up a lot to digest intellectually.
Take “Naturalization Drawing Table,” a desk made out of bodega barriers. Plastered onto the desk are the immigration forms; a statement on Ward’s naturalization process— he didn’t start until after 9/11 and it took the better part of a decade— but also on what it takes to become a citizen in the U.S. more broadly. During select, yet-to-be-disclosed days at the Barnes, the installation will be “activated.”
“It will give visitors (those who choose to participate) a taste of the immigration process by asking them to show identification, be photographed, and complete a form/application,” a museum rep explains in an email. “Their completed applications will become part of the exhibition.”
Ward is not obscure. In the art world, there has long been talk of his striking, incredibly detailed sculptures primarily made from salvaged items. And yet still, Sun Splashed, the exhibition that opens today at the Barnes, is one that asks visitors to look, then look again.
They can read like odes to black urban culture; curator Diana Nawi sees a commentary on urban spaces more broadly, as well. With either or both lenses, remembering that cities are rapidly changing or that Ward’s Harlem is the same is easy. Ward wasn’t focusing on neighborhood change when he made what’s on display. (He’s working on a piece now where he’s addressing it, though.) He views the matter as complex.
“There’s a lot of expectation that gentrification isn’t necessarily a good thing and that it’s all bad. And it isn’t all bad. That’s the problem,” Ward says. He’s noticed more resources available in the neighborhood. The displacement that’s happening, however, he’s had trouble with. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be Darwinian— the strong rules over everything mindset. There has to be a way to keep the rhythm of the neighborhood and the character of the neighborhood.”
A piece of Ward’s that feels very New York to him is “Beat Box.” It’s a partially hollowed-out payphone stand where the speakers are represented with a toy drum, placed where a dial pad would be. The way that “Beat Box” can communicate playfulness from more than one era, from more than one age, is a talent of Ward’s. The fire extinguisher attached to the side of the piece, another reference out of many. Ward traffics in symbolism, brewed together, or as Nawi says, he “remixes” things.
Ward was born in Jamaica and came to New Jersey with his family as a kid, before moving to (and spending much of his time as an artist in) NYC. He plays with ideas of American blackness, but his take is diasporic one. The work may not immediately look like the islands, but his massive mango-inspired installations sculptures are emblematic of his perspective.
“It was really important for us to diversify the way we look at the art, to look at Nari’s practice in particular. To not just think of it strictly through the lens of African American art and African American history,” says Nawi. “I think we write [Caribbean Americans] out of history and don’t think about what the multiple textures of black experience are.”
In Sun Splashed, visitors will see cowrie shells and Underground Railroad breathing holes. (Runaway slaves sometimes hid under the floorboards in churches; friendly houses of worship would puncture their floors in designs so that the slaves could breathe and to throw off suspicion that the small openings weren’t meant to be there.) If a piece could literally reference something that far back, how does Ward make decisions about what to add and what to leave out?
He explains he “tak[es a] symbol that is a cliche and tri[es] to figure out how to humanize it.” He continues, “It comes down to how to stay balanced. If I have something that’s totally iconic, symbolic, sort of a monolith, like a logo, then i have to find something natural to pull it into this other sort of space.” He points to a Chase bank banner that he painted. That, for Ward, called for cowrie shells, another type of currency at one time.
“It’s always been like ‘who’s your audience.’ From the very beginning, I think ‘Who am I making this for?’ And I’m making it for myself first,” says Ward. “These are the things I see in my neighborhood. These are the things that carry meaning for me.”
This exhibition comes at a special moment of enhanced attention for black artists. While this isn’t one of those restoring appreciation to the unsung stories, Nawi thinks this movement is good for Ward as well.
“In some ways, I don’t think he’s gotten the due. He’s always been discussed as two things: as labor and found objects and that’s it. That was the whole discourse,” she says. “Looking at somebody’s who’s worked across such a range of diverse materials, and ideas and ways of working? I think in some ways it’s been really great to bring everything together. So people who have seen maybe one or two things of his somewhere can finally get to see the breadth and depth of the practice.”