Unconventional: America Lost and Found in the Art of Nari Ward

When the 2016 Democratic National Convention convenes in Philadelphia in late July, they’d be smart to add Nari Ward: Sun Splashed at the Barnes Foundation to their itinerary.  Surveying the fractured American political and cultural landscape, artist Nari Ward takes found objects and found pieces of our history—past and present—to piece together unconventional, fascinating art that defies easy interpretation while inciting deeper discussion.  Ward’s We the People (shown above), a rendering of the first words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in a rainbow array of shoelaces, captures perfectly both the multicolored tapestry of America and the frayed state of the union.  If our politicians put as much thought into legislation as Ward puts into his pieces, America would be a much more harmonious place. 


Image: Nari Ward. Sun Splashed, Artin, 2013. Chromogenic print. 39 x 29 inches.  Photographed by Lee Jaffe. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, and Havana.


Who is Nari Ward?  That’s a question he wants us to keep asking, over and over, not just about him, but also about ourselves.  In Sun Splashed, Artin (shown above), Ward dons a plantation-style costume evoking his native Jamaica.  In the photo, Ward waters houseplants and, apparently, himself.  But is it water or the sweat of his toil?  Is Ward “really” Jamaican or is he an “American” riffing on his roots?  What do those terms mean, if anything?  But just as Ward’s work plows into heavy philosophy, it lightens the mood with the title’s reference to the “Sun Splashed” reggae festivals popular in late 1970s Jamaica that featured artists such as Bob Marley.  It’s important to remember, however, that Bob Marley’s music spoke to political issues as well and that sunny Jamaica’s history pre- and post-colonization darkens with violence throughout.  Things, as Ward warns, are rarely what they seem.

Ward Sun Splashed-GloryImage: Nari Ward.  Glory, 2004.  Oil barrel, fluorescent and ultraviolet tubes, computer parts, DVD, parrot audio, Plexiglass, fan, camera casing elements, paint cans, cement, towels, and rubber roofing membrane.  Dimensions variable.  Installation photo by author.


Created a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the phrase “blood for oil” and oil barrels themselves represented ulterior motives for attack, Glory (shown above) takes those same oil barrels and turns them into a star-spangled tanning bed.  Is an hour in Ward’s contraption the ultimate in patriotism or protest?  Why wear the flag on your sleeve when you can wear it all over your skin?  Yet, how paradoxical is it that some people willingly darken their skin in such machines (or on sun-splashed beaches) in a world that normally discriminates against people of color?  Again, just as the questions get heavy, Ward makes you laugh—and then think.  During the press preview, Ward recounted how he was searching for a way to counter the darkness of Glory when he found a recording used to teach parrots English that made him and his family laugh.  Ward’s grafting of the incongruous element of a parrot speaking onto Glory will make you laugh, but when you hear the “Star-Spangled Banner” whistled, you get to thinking again.  Sights, and sounds, are never what they seem.

Ward Sun Splashed-Rock, Booked, Scissor, Vice

Image: Nari Ward.  Rock, Booked, Scissor, Vise, 2010.  Black’s Law Dictionary, rock, scissors, and vise.  Installation photo by author.


Ward’s whimsy makes his art both accessible and deceptive.  You laugh before you want to cry.  That accessibility comes Ward’s openness to his surroundings and their possibilities.  Once, while visiting his lawyer brother-in-law, Ward noticed he owned a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary, a standard reference book.  Ward, however, initially misread the title not as Henry Campbell Black’s work but as a special legal reference for Americans of color, who often seem to live under a different set of laws.  The idea that no words on paper could protect African Americans, however, set Ward’s mind in the direction of the children’s game of roshambo, or rock, paper, scissors.  In Ward’s version, rock wins over paper, law books get you “booked” by the police, the scissors feel like a stab in the back of the American dream, and a vise squeezes the rule of law shut for minorities.  Untangling the network woven by Ward’s combinatory genius in that way doesn’t do justice to the greater, summed force of such simple objects when he puts them together.

Ward Sun Splashed-09

Image: Nari Ward.  Savior, 1996.  Shopping cart, plastic garbage bags, cloth, bottles, metal fence, earth, wheel, mirror, chair, and clocks.  Collection of Jennifer McSweeney.  Installation photo by author.


Ward’s vision inspires others to see the unseen.  Shopping carts litter the American landscape, often wielded by the homeless as their mobile place of being.  Ward elevates the lowly shopping cart and its lowly possessors in Savior (shown above), which tricks out a normal cart towards the skies.  Ward recalls making Savior after spending time with Shaker craftsmen, who make each of their famous chairs as if an angel were to sit in it.  With that in mind, Ward placed a chair atop Savior, as if awaiting an angel.  In a companion video, Pushing Savior, Ward shows himself pushing Savior to his local church from his studio and back again while dressed in his church-going best.  It reminded me of the time I heard a priest ask what if there were angels among us, but they were disguised as the homeless.  Savior struck me like the beatitudes on wheels.

Ward Sun Splashed-Oriented Right

Image: Nari Ward.  Oriented Right, 2015.  Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina.  Collection of Allison and Larry Berg. Installation photo by author.


But Ward’s art’s much more than messages and questions.  There’s a lyrical, cosmic beauty inseparably linked to the preaching.  In Oriented Right (shown above), Ward recreates the floor of the First African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, the oldest Black church in North America and once a station on the “Underground Railroad” during the age of slavery.  Escaping slaves would hide beneath the church floor and breathe through holes arranged in decorative patterns derived from Congolese cosmological symbols.  Ward sets those holes in a copper sheet in the upper right corner like a guiding star, with lines of energy streaming out.  Perhaps Democrats and Republicans in this pivotal election could set their path on that star and reorient America, so set off course presently in terms of race, immigration, and identity, back on track.  If Nari Ward’s unconventional convening of objects with a purpose gets us all thinking and talking to one another, it would truly be a beautiful thing.


[Image at top of post: Nari WardWe the People, 2011. Shoelaces.  In collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky. Gift of Speed Contemporary, 2016.1.  Installation photo by author.]

[Many thanks to the Barnes Foundation for press materials related to, images from, and an invitation to the press preview for Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, which runs through August 22, 2016.]

[Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

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