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The New York–based artist Nari Ward has never shied away from tough topics like race, politics, and poverty. Since the beginning of his practice, he has used found objects to create sculptures and installations with an aim to encourage dialogue and community engagement.
“I feel like it’s always been our role in the midst of crisis to figure out what that feeling is for the viewer,” said Ward in our recent interview.
While attending graduate school at Brooklyn College for drawing, Ward commuted from his aunt’s house in Harlem on 155th Street. “The idea of Harlem was really what was so magical—the history of it,” said Ward. “When I was here, it was really in a critical state. You would see empty lots. It was the time of the crack epidemic and so I saw a lot of things, found things, and I wanted to build stories from it.”
Last year, Ward became involved with Power House Productions (PHP) in Detroit, an artist-run, neighborhood-based nonprofit run by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert that creates public spaces to integrate arts and culture into the city’s neighborhoods. “It’s smart because the problem was, in those neighborhoods, people would flee because of the taxes and the crime,” said Ward. PHP invited Ward, along with Matthew Barney, to donate works to Skate House, which gained generous funding from the Tony Hawk Foundation. “There was this moment of seeing the neighborhood changing,” said Ward. “People had gardens in their front lawns and were farming, and I remember seeing tons of goats running around!”
That first sight introduced Ward to the role of goats in the local Bengali community. He went on to create a sculpture of a goat for Skate House—a piece of art that the community would understand and appreciate. This past summer, Ward revisited the form of the goat, but with a political bent, naming a public installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, “G.O.A.T. again.” The artist was connecting the sporting phrase “Greatest of All Time” (originally given to Muhammed Ali) and the absurdity of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” Ward also had a solo exhibition entitled “TILL, LIT” at Lehmann Maupin, which was centered around our country’s obsession with money and skewed value system, and had his retrospective “Sun Splashed” at the ICA in Boston.
To hear more about his practice, Whitewall visited Ward at his studio in Harlem.
WHITEWALL: Tell us about “G.O.A.T., again” in New York, public sculptures of goats with rebar sprouting from the goats’ backs.
NARI WARD: I remember in Jamaica when folks were building their homes, they were building with this rebar sticking out of the top. It’s just the nature of construction. When I see rebar sticking out of the roofs, it always conjures possibilities, so that was never wanting the work to be entirely dark. I really wanted to have possibility there.
The Socrates iteration allowed me to place material in context. It was really interesting, because I had to think about the park in terms of when we started in December when everything was kind of visually clear, and I had think about it when the trees would be blooming and the sight lines would be harder to navigate.
WW: Your show “TILL, LIT” at Lehmann Maupin featured new mixed-media paintings, sculptures, and installations. In your “LIT” section, you used everyday objects as a metaphor for economic and social reality, and in “TILL,” you explored money by using actual money. A portion of the proceeds from the exhibition went to Housing Works, too. Can you tell us a bit about that?
NW: Specifically, the proceeds from the “TILL” pieces [go to Housing Works]. The catalysts for the project started when I figured out a way to extricate the dollar bill just enough where it wouldn’t be missing [in the work], using my laser-cutter. Once I had this material, I wanted to figure out what I could do with it—what it would mean to engage it as symbolic space and empty space. There is something very mischievous about that. Cutting it off, but having it still function—almost like cheating the function.
Once I had this, I thought, “What does money mean?” and I was thinking about how money operates in this American capitalist structure, then this alignment with money and religion came. The Christian faith, specifically—“In God We Trust”—and the Eye of Providence. I was thinking about how we engage with this critique and dialogue. For me, inconsistencies and contradictions are really interesting, and I feel like that’s a space I want to wrestle with and figure out how to make active in the work.
WW: Why did you initially choose to do something with money?
NW: From the very beginning, when I was starting this project, before lasers were even out (I think it was about 15 years ago), I wanted to do this. I really wanted to work with something people are familiar with. For me, I was ask- ing, “Can I mess with this? Can I use this in a way that is unexpected? And then if I did that, how can I make special?” The ubiquitous nature of the money was what I was intrigued by—even questioning if this is real.
What I like about a project is that even if it’s real, it’s not necessarily genuine. The idea that when you get one of these bills, there’s nothing wrong with it, but the fact that I extricated it a little bit means that it’s off. I think it’s a really exciting space of figuring out how to highjack that apparatus that is already so malleable.
WW: “Sun Splashed,” which traveled from PAMM and was at the ICA in Boston this summer, is the largest survey to date of your work. Can you tell us about the exhibition?
NW: What’s really interesting is that for many years I wanted to downplay my Jamaicanness, because I felt that it was ghettoizing the work. When the curator was going through everything, I realized that was a particular lens through which my experience could be understood. And so it was necessary for me to acknowledge that I was using memory and my experience of Jamaica as a way to talk about the “now” as my career is evolving. There are components of the Caribbean traced primarily through memory, and urban or even southern vernacular, using objects, fine objects, and things of that nature.
WW: So was that the first time you addressed your Jamaicanness?
NW: I felt more empowered to not reject it. This was different. I really thought that was an important thing, and it’s hard with labels—they put you on this periphery and sort of marginalize you. I just want to be an artist in the mix. I just want to be an artist in the room. That was part of the contention—maybe you’re always going to be somebody else’s theory. You might as well do what works for you, and not always second-guess your ideas.
For me it was really empowering to just say, “Take it all in.”
WW: How did it feel when you won the 2017 Vilcek Prize for the Arts from The Vilcek Foundation in New York—given annually to immigrant artists?
NW: I think the family really wanted to celebrate the contribution of immigrants to America. They consistently award sciences, but they are touching on the arts—from writing to dance to theater. I was in Jamaica when they called. I was planning on building a residency program when I was there, and I was doing a site visit, and I remember getting this call.
It was national nomination for a body of work. I didn’t apply for it; somebody nominated me. At this sort of stage, you can get 20 or 30 artists. My caliber of immigrants are doing good work! To be honest, I think one of the fortunate things about the cycle of news and the cycle of anxiety around these questions is that—whether it’s community, abuse of power—those things keep coming up. I think they are universal in a lot of ways. That resonated in the body of work. It means a lot because there is a real issue now to getting at why America is great. It’s complicated. “TILL LIT” touches on that. It really talks about the idea of value, and how value is assigned. America is great—but there are three things. I am a big American supporter, but you really have to acknowledge there is a dark side to our success. From the Native Americans to African-American slavery, and the one thing that has been the salvation of all of that is immigration.
Everybody comes here with this dream, and there is an uplift. Everybody comes here for this “American dream,” and the idea that you are going to attack that can only allow for the darker narrative to rise. I think that’s the danger of it. You really want to focus on what’s successful and what’s progressive. If you stifle that, unfortunately, you are going to dig up this other side that’s already present. I feel like there is a choice that we’re at, and a choice is going to create more friction. I think we should be celebrating immigrants, because it’s really what made America great. It’s not this notion of a retro greatness. It is in our midst. For me, it’s the moment of acknowledgment of that that is really special.