MIAMI — At the Pérez Art Museum (PAMM), Nari Ward’s retrospective looks at simulations of paradise — environments not unlike the jungle-like landscapes of hanging greenery and flora that make up PAMM’s curated exteriors. Through five rooms, the Jamaica-born Ward creates fictional experiences for the viewer by skewing found material, photography, collage, video, social documentation, and sculpture into art objects. While the messages of several pieces, like an overprocessed tropical drink, can be overly explicit (for example, do we really need to see monolithic snowmen dotted with mango seeds to understand the effect of consumerist tourism?), Ward’s strengths lie in his exploration of diasporic identity and African-American culture. His pieces, curated by PAMM’s Assistant Curator Diana Nawi, raise questions about the troubling face of contemporary conversations about blackness.
You’d expect guns, or mentions of negative associations with black culture. Instead, Ward references tourist organizations’ tendencies to paper over trauma with fantastical narratives. The title of the exhibit, Sun Splashed, references a reggae festival popular in Jamaica, but also implies how Caribbean hotspots are falsely advertised as always happy and sunny. The exhibition opens with the bold and vaguely sarcastic installation, “Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping” (1996), which occupies an entire room. A facsimile storefront, inspired by a real gambling den in Harlem that fronted as a candy store, invites bystanders to walk under its bright yellow awning from which soda bottles sway as if charmed by an imaginary Caribbean breeze. Soft chatter, music, and laughter loop on a soundtrack. Once inside the installation itself, however, the audio switches to rain on a rooftop. A fire escape hangs in the center of the yellow-painted space, partially surrounded by barricades of domestic objects: electric fans, vacuum cleaners, and radios strapped together by long, tight meters of fire hose. The kinetic tension — the objects are supported by rope, the fire escape suspended from the ceiling — in this piece dictates a theme of complex binaries and juxtapositions apparent in Ward’s oeuvre. Forces that oppose each other also disturbingly complement each other, a consideration he weaves into his commentary on social and judicial ecosystems.
Take, for example, “Savior” (1996), a sculpted tower built up from a found shopping cart. The top of it rises like a spire and is made out of literal junk: trashcans, bottles, fence latticing. Symbolically, the piece resembles a Christian cathedral or church, but its materiality strongly whiffs of the makeshift carriages that homeless travelers or gypsies fashion from things society no longer finds valuable, or holy. Another installation, “Glory” (2004) is a composite structure tacked together with imagery and materials of different cultures: an audio recording of a parrot learning English reverberates around a half-open tanning bed, which is lit and starkly highlights the surrounding oil barrels engraved with the US flag. (It’s noted that the piece was made a year after the United States invaded Iraq.)
Ward is an ambitious artist, no doubt. But it becomes difficult to navigate Sun Splashed after the first room, namely because his works do not exactly follow a narrative, even when processed chronologically. Rather, just like how his textures and symbols mesh together, the retrospective is a conflicted assembly of messages.
The identity conflicts are clearest in Ward’s artistic homages. A wall of photographs, depicting African American kids from the 1950s or ‘60s, reveal inked silhouettes which allude to and are in solidarity with Kara Walker and Norman Rockwell’s black expression. In “Naturalization Drawing Table” (2004), viewers are encouraged to have their profiles snapped and fill out immigration forms (although only on specific open days set by PAMM), which will then be stuck up on the wall as part of the piece. This clinical spread of forms and photographs heavily references Taryn Simon’s photo essays, which also observe social customs and rejections, showing that a person’s fate is often dictated by random regulations more than anything else.
Ward’s most recent works, displayed in the penultimate room, are massive copper sheets perforated with holes, each with its own orbit of flatheaded copper nails. Footprints — the artist’s own — of gradated hues are leftovers from Ward dancing across the surface in patina-doused shoes. The punctures mimic breathing holes in the floorboards found in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, where slaves hid under before escaping, as well as patterns of ancient Congolese cosmology. These holes are mysterious and sublime studies of African American history and spaces of worship. It is the one piece in the show that doesn’t push to recreate a fictional site (void of real citizens) or rely on visitor intervention. Rather, you sense the bodies and the breaths lying just beneath the shiny copper surfaces, and the suppressed voices of millions that hid in the shadows before Ward ever made it to PAMM.
Nari Ward: Sun Splashed continues at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami) through February 21.
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