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Nari Ward‘s recent solo show at Lehmann Maupin “Breathing Directions” (September 9—November 1) showcased works in copper panels shaped by personal experiences and historical references to things like African prayer symbols and allusions to the Underground Railroad. His sculptural installation, Ground, was composed of over 700 masonry bricks laid individually on the gallery floor. Then, there was Spellbound—a piece commissioned by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and the first piece of the show that he completed back in February. It served as the exhibition’s backdrop, and it tells us about forgotten histories, inaccessible or disused places, and historical events that are no longer acknowledged.
Ward found inspiration for that work when he visited the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA. He knew that during the 19th century, when fleeing slaves were seeking freedom in the North, most hid underground, and under the floorboards of many safe churches and homes. But it wasn’t until this specific visit that he set out to replicate its significance.
Ward told Whitewall recently, “It was that moment, being in that church, looking around, and thinking about the historical weight of that moment. And… not really knowing what I wanted to do with this. I knew it was a touching, powerful moment, but I didn’t know how I could possibly reiterate that.”
Materials like copper and patina helped in its reiteration. “When I started to work with the copper, I thought that it was a material that I could find a voice for what I was feeling in that space—the church—but I wasn’t sure how to do it yet,” Ward said. “It wasn’t until I was visiting this collector who has these Basquiat drawings, this beautiful piece. It was basically a notebook taken apart and sewn onto the canvas—really large-scale. It was a great, powerful piece. I remember leaving his place, thinking about the work, and what stayed with me was that along the boundaries of the notebook, there was his footprint,” he said. “It made me think about that other moment when I was in the church and that person not being there. It was something about that I felt was even, in some ways, more enduring—this physical body having been traced.”
He laid the panels on the ground, stepped in patina, and then walked on top of the panels. “I really just wanted the evidence of the body being expressed. And then the holes were these voids that were much more about the mystery of that space—the mischievous space that’s not visible,” said Ward. He also explained that the position of the panels reference the escaping of slaves, and their journey north.
What he also wanted to incorporate was the coded language, such as the symbols, of the Underground Railroad; things like Cosmograms—ancient prayer symbols that represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth are seen. “I felt like they were important because they were symbols of trust, and maybe even self-sacrifice. And also, symbols of an almost mythology of people, because when I started researching the history of this, the quilts, there was a good amount of historians who doubted their use—because it was only coming from one family’s experience,” Ward said. The interest of this intriguing mythology fascinated him, and it has become apart of his accepted belief.
Ward is now preparing for the November 19 opening of his retrospective “Sun-Splashed” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). The exhibition title references Jamaica’s “Reggae Sunsplash” festival that began in 1978, and the survey includes a work that shows Ward as “sort of vulnerable, but resilient,” as he is watered like an Italian houseplant while dressed in his father’s entertainment outfits. “You’re not sure why he’s there, or what he’s doing, so there’s also a sense of humor,” he told us. “The strange messiness of it, I really enjoy. And the fact that it’s a houseplant, it’s not in its natural environment, made me think about this idea of the immigrant trying to make it in his new environment, and surviving. So the piece really echoed all of these different tenderals that I was interested in. But just like Sunsplash, that’s kind of part spectacle, there’s something really ‘spectacle’ of me standing there… wet.”
A selection of work by Ward from the past 20 years was chosen by Diana Nawi, and is heavily guided by African-American history and culture, urban sensibility, political power dynamics, and Caribbean diaspora identity. “We have to figure out how to make those conversations happen in this gallery space, which is great. The work is chronological, and really parceling out these subject matters in conversation with each other. That, for me, is really exciting because I’m always thinking about the work more chronologically, and to see them in these cross-year of conversations of topics or categories… I’m really curious to see what it feels like in that space.”