Nari Ward has been living in Harlem since the 1990s. There, he developed his unique practice of recycling detritus to create sculptural installations that examine the politics of culture and social practices. Drawing materials from history and his surroundings, as well as personal experiences, Ward presents an alternative perspective on power. As he told Ocula Magazine in 2019, 'you don't necessarily need to be part of that canon—being outside of it is quite okay, and trying to be inside of it in some way dilutes your position. You fight for your own space, not to join that space.'Read More
Many of Nari Ward's early works retain a timeless quality, resonating with socio-political conflicts of today. In Amazing Grace (1993), for example, the artist arranged over 300 discarded children's strollers into a shape reminiscent of a vulva or a slave ship, echoing the displacement of families through increasing gentrification in 1990s Harlem.
Revisited today, Amazing Grace may recall the United States border policy with Mexico, in which children are separated from their parents. Another work, Iron Heavens (1995), consists of a tall wall made from oven pans, at the bottom of which lies a pile of baseball bats and sterilised cotton balls—possibly alluding to the history of discrimination against African Americans in baseball and the use of bats as weapons in racial violence.
Nari Ward began to gain critical attention with 3 Legged Race (1996), the artist-run exhibition he organised with his fellow artists and friends, Janine Antoni and Marcel Odenbach. In an abandoned firehouse in Harlem, Ward installed Hunger Cradle: a structure constructed from rope and colourful yarn that resembled a complex spiderweb with a myriad of found objects woven into it. Hovering in the air, the otherwise mundane items took on an almost magical quality.
A recurrent motif in Nari Ward's work takes the form of a diamond that derives from a West African cosmogram. In the 18th century, the symbol was also used as the pattern for the holes drilled into the floorboards in the First African Baptist Church, Georgia, which helped slaves who were hiding underneath to breathe. In Ward's series of works such as 'Breathing Panels' (2015) and 'Breathing Circles' (2018), the cosmogram appears as puncture holes in copper sheets; the artist then walks or dances over them to leave traces of his footprints.
Nari Ward's iconic shoelace series consists of wall sculptures created from multi-coloured shoelaces that spell out phrases or depict potent imagery. The messages include We the People (2011)—the famous first three words of the United States Constitution. Power Wall—Power People (2019), included in his joint exhibition with Robin Rhode at Lehmann Maupin, Hong Kong (Power Wall, 2020), shows a clenched fist. Through the ubiquity of the shoelace, Ward suggests a universal humanity and possibilities of movement.
Selected solo exhibitions include We the People, which debuted at the New Museum in 2019 and travelled to Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2019) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (2020); and Sun Splashed, presented at Pérez Art Museum Miami (2015), the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (2016), and The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2017).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2020