Way back in 1996, three friends — Janine Antoni, Marcel Odenbach, and Nari Ward — presented a memorable exhibition, 3 Legged Race, in an abandoned 19th-century firehouse in Harlem. This artist-driven show was for me, and for many others as well, an absolute highlight of that era, and it occurred with little institutional support and next to no money in a neighborhood that was hardly an art-world focus at the time.
The artists didn’t just transport finished works to this unorthodox site. Instead, through various media (videos by Odenbach, a marvelous domestic installation by Antoni, and sculptural installations by the Jamaica-born, New Jersey-raised Ward, who lives in Harlem), they directly engaged the site, opening themselves to it and all its history, entropy, and indications of past lives and use. Their exhibition also uncommonly engaged local residents, just as many Harlem buildings were faltering or abandoned and gentrification and dislocation were on the rise.
One of Ward’s two works in the exhibition was “Hunger Cradle” (1996), a web-like, room-filling structure made from rope and multicolored yarn, in which all sorts of objects found on-site were suspended, including a child’s crib, broken furniture, books, and tools. Nestled in the netting, these mundane items suddenly looked potent and significant, almost like devotional or talismanic objects.
Reviewing the exhibition in The New York Times, Holland Cotter called Ward’s immersive work “magical,” a spot-on description. It was magical back then and it is magical now in Ward’s excellent retrospective exhibition Nari Ward: We the People, at the New Museum. This is Ward’s first solo museum show in New York since his 1993 debut at the New Museum in its former Soho location.
“Hunger Cradle” is now installed overhead in the second-floor corridor. Copious rope, often dark and foreboding, evokes fierce barriers and forcible restriction, while innumerable strands of colored yarn (red, blue, orange, yellow, green) are lambent and entrancing. As with its prior incarnation, this complex web holds aloft numerous partially occluded objects, some from the original installation, others acquired through the years.
There is something quite tender in the way the aerial web indeed “cradles” these disparate objects (some quite heavy), literally as well as figuratively elevating this collection of ignoble flotsam. Suggesting a neural network writ large, the objects overhead also seem downright heavenly — constellations in the night sky, celestial bodies orbiting on high.
While the retrospective includes artworks in diverse mediums spanning Ward’s career so far, it is weighted toward sculptures and installations from the 1990s, and that’s a good thing. Many of these impressive works, involving materials scavenged in Harlem, will be unfamiliar to most viewers, especially to younger viewers. To say that Ward uses and repurposes found and familiar objects doesn’t come close to the power of his work. He’s a maestro of detritus, a visual poet of ordinary things, infusing them with political, historical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual import, often involving matters of race.
Several towering sculptures are made of sundry found materials, some atop shopping carts or strollers that call to mind carts used by the homeless as well as street vendors in both Harlem and Jamaica (Ward once paraded these sculptures through Harlem streets and you can see his actions in videos).
These exceedingly rough, yet intricate and delicate sculptures have a look of both obsessive folk art and devotional shrines. “Savior” (1996) is a showstopper. A curving structure made of, among other things, plastic garbage bags, bottles, part of a metal fence, and clocks, soars upward from a shopping cart; a chair is balanced on top, appearing at once exuberant and precarious.
For “Amazing Grace” (1993), Ward, while he was artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, spent more than a year accumulating discarded children’s strollers on the streets and from dumpsters in his neighborhood. It was startling, one imagines, to see so many of these strollers, so indicative of families, parental love, and fragile little kids abandoned outdoors, at a time when many families in Harlem were being displaced.
Three hundred-plus rickety and sullied strollers are arrayed in two dense arcs around a long, central mound made of more strollers entangled with fire hose — the same kind of hose used by authorities to brutalize Civil Rights demonstrators in the 1960s. Ward has said that the layout loosely resembles a womb, but it also suggests a ship’s hull (most ominously, a slave ship) and perhaps a choir loft as well. More deflated fire hoses form pathways allowing viewers to circle the central mound.
Ward, with his direct-action sculptural politics, excels at taking materials identified with racist violence and oppression (fire hoses, baseball bats, a police surveillance tower), transfiguring them in a most hands-on way, and giving them entirely new, non-oppressive functions and meanings. You move through the work listening to a looped recording of Mahalia Jackson’s mesmerizing rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a song written in 1779 by the English clergyman and former slave trader John Newton. The experience is shattering but also hugely uplifting. Loss, racist violence, upheaval, the legacy of slavery, death and mourning are all here, but so too are hopefulness and transcendence.
There is nothing dated about Nari Ward’s early works, which seem remarkably fresh, as if completed just last week, not 25 (or so) years ago. They not only withstand the test of time, they flourish in time, in the process acquiring new significance and relevance.
With its abandoned strollers and vanished children, Ward’s “Amazing Grace” seems uncannily prescient in a time when it is official government policy to separate children from their parents at the US. border with Mexico. So too does “Homeland Sweet Homeland” (2012): an outsize wall hanging made of cloth festooned with razor wire, feathers in the shape of an eagle, metal spoons, bullhorns, chains, and plastic is embroidered with statements counseling people of color how best to respond if targeted by the police, including “I do not wish to answer any questions without speaking to an attorney. I wish to speak to my attorney now.”
“Iron Heavens” (1995) is especially apt for Trump Time. Charred and blackened baseball bats, arranged in a sloping pile, are tufted with sterilized cotton balls that Ward dipped in sugar, dried, and ironed to harden the edges (cotton and sugar being two chief products identified with slavery in the US and the Caribbean). They suggest amulets and poultices.
The black bats evoke the national pastime, but also the decades of Major League discrimination against African Americans, which gave rise to the Negro Leagues, and, most alarmingly, the all-too-common use of bats as weapons by racists, including the rioters — declared “very fine people” by the president — at the 2017 white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia,
On the wall behind hangs a mesh of overlapping cooking pans. With the pans’ rudimentary lines, corrugated ridges, and concentric circles, this largely dark ensemble is a riveting post-minimal abstract painting sans paint, while die-cut holes and speckles of light play across the surface, conjuring the glittering cosmos.
Spirituality and a cosmic orientation have long been fundamental to Ward’s art, as this exhibition amply underscores. With “Carpet Angel” (1992), which was in Ward’s first New Museum show and has not been exhibited since, a mound of carpet scraps on the floor (left in Ward’s studio by the previous tenant) sprouts surprisingly lovely, even floral, mangled plastic bottles; this urban junk is oddly fecund. Above, suspended from the ceiling, is an abstracted angel with spreading wings; it’s also made from carpet pieces, tied together by plastic shopping bags, along with a large, blue piece of plastic forming the torso and arms. From this mass of junk, a gorgeous, yet rugged and ragged “angel” ascends, and it is breathtaking.
For his 2015 exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art, Ward went to Savannah, Georgia, where he visited the First African Baptist Church, which dates to the late 18th century. In the church, Ward noticed a geometric design made of small holes in the floor, a cross within a diamond. It’s a version of a spiritual symbol from West Africa, a Kongo cosmogram, but it had another function, allowing escaped slaves concealed beneath the floor, to breathe as the church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
That cosmogram figures prominently in the stunning “Spellbound” (2015), an old piano covered with used metal door keys and Spanish moss, above which dangles a single lightbulb. Right here you see something crucial for Ward. He doesn’t just utilize found objects. He communicates with them, intellectually and visually, but even more important, soulfully — and, one imagines, they communicate with him. They matter. They have secrets and power. The abundant keys suggest an age-old yearning for freedom and release, but also lost homes and forgotten histories.
The dried Spanish moss wraps things in visions of the American South, and in nature. The piano is a living monument to music, and on its back side is a video, shot in Savannah, in which current and past African American life converge. You see a black man singing outdoors (wonderfully), panning shots of weathered architecture, the cosmogram that allowed escaped slaves to breathe (and, no doubt, fooled many white intruders who thought it only some arcane decoration). This work is at once elegiac and supremely sensitive. The piano is also bedazzling.
That cosmogram from Savannah, with its African roots and distinctly African-American history, appears in six of Ward’s painting-like works made of patinated copper sheets on oak panels; he has also walked (or danced) on the copper sheets, leaving traces of his footprints. Four smaller round ones are from his 2018 “Breathing Circles” series; two large, rectangular ones are from his 2015 “Breathing Panels” series. The cosmograms appear as holes punctured through the surface. Each hole is surrounded by tiny, reflective copper nails that seem to glow as radial lines, incised in the copper, stretch outward across the surface with its variegated colors. That cosmogram, conflating African spirituality with diasporic history, also suggests a constellation in the night sky pointing the way toward freedom and the North, which the footprints also emphasize.
Ward’s exhibition is eventful throughout and deeply compelling. It’s also the right show for this tremendously fraught and conflicted moment. “We the People” (2011) presents the famous introductory words of the United States Constitution but rendered, in their original calligraphy, by multicolored shoelaces, suggesting basketball shoes and street gear, inlaid in the wall. The words seem to be fraying, coming apart at the seams, but the shoelaces also invest the Constitution — written and signed solely by white men, some of them slaveholders — with colorful multiplicity and a tropical flair, perhaps linked to Jamaica: an emphatic endorsement of democratic inclusivity in a profoundly troubled time.
Nari Ward: We the People continues at the New Museum for Contemporary Art (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 26. The exhibition was curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator; Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson Artistic Director; and Helga Christoffersen, Associate Curator.