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Nari Ward brings Mango Tourists and other exotics to the Barnes Foundation
The Philadelphia Inquirer

When Jamaica-born Nari Ward, 53, was preparing for a large 2011 exhibition at Mass MoCA, the contemporary art museum in North Adams, Mass., he took a look around and knew exactly what he needed.


Snowmen tourists. Obviously.


It was a case of art speaking to the new economics of western Massachusetts, a place once known for making things, but now importing art-making to attract traveling consumers.


Mango Tourist, his gaggle of eight seared-foam, capacitor-bedecked, mango-seed-studded, 10-foot-tall figures was born, a wry reflection on the shared lives of the Berkshire hills and sunburned Jamaica.


"It's about energy, energy that's autonomous," the soft-spoken Ward said the other day as three tourists were being pried from crates in preparation for exhibition at the Barnes Foundation.


"Nari Ward: Sun Splashed," a mid-career retrospective that began at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, opens at the Barnes on Friday for a run through Aug. 22.


The exhibition contains more than two dozen pieces, many assembled from street detritus, but also including photographs and even participatory drawings.


Naturalization Drawing Table (2004) will give willing visitors a taste of the immigration process by asking them to show identification and be photographed. Their completed applications will become part of the exhibition.


Ward is keenly interested in the structures of power and bureaucracy that shape and sap daily life.


"At Mass MoCA, I was making a comparison in that body of work between Jamaica as this kind of tourist economy that needs support from the outside to function, this dependent state that it becomes," Ward continued, "and North Adams, Mass., where Mass MoCA and the arts really became the engine for revitalizing that community. . . ."


"The reason it's called Mango Tourist is this idea of the tourist as a kind of driving force, but not necessarily a force that's specific to the region. It's something that's necessary, but not indigenous to the area."


Ward, who has lived in an old firehouse on 141st Street in Harlem for more than 25 years, is well-known as an assembler, a scavenger, a master of urban bricolage and ironic paradox.


Mango Tourist is the pudding's proof.


He knew that the Mass MoCA complex is located in the old Sprague Electronics factory complex, where paper capacitors were invented and radios and electronic components were made for three-quarters of a century. The company closed in the early 1990s, but Sprague resistors and capacitors and batteries overflow storage bins - analog relics in a digital age.


Ward scooped up thousands for his tourists.


Mango seeds, the potent center of what is now the world's most popular fruit, usually end up in the trash.


"A lot of people don't know. They say, 'Did you eat all those mangos?' " said Ward. "No. I actually found a mango lobby. Every food source has a lobby to make sure that they get supported. So the International Mango Board was able to furnish me with as many mango seeds as I needed. Thank God for that."


The foam for his tourists came from thrift stores. He bought old mattress foam on the cheap, and the first time he took a torch to it for sealing and searing, the foam exploded into flame.


"It was like fuel!" he said. "People are sleeping on gasoline!"


After that, Ward made sure to pick up only fire-resistant foam.


The seeds are contained within the folds of the foam, and the capacitors and resistors cover the surface like jewelry. They become comic figures with a point.


Indeed, much of Ward's work contains very pointed humor.


Glory is his 2004 take on tanning beds. It's constructed of old oil drums.


"It works," he said. "If you lay there, in theory, it can tan the American flag on your body."


Glory also has an audio component - a recording that Ward found while visiting Philadelphian Kippy Stroud's Kamp Kippy in Maine one summer.


Ward and his family stayed in a house where there must have been a parrot at some point. His children found a CD in a player - How to Teach Your Parrot English. Ward snatched it.


So now Glory resonates with "Bad Bird! Bad Bird! Bad Bird!" as well as parrot renderings of "Dixie" and "The Star Spangled Banner."


"It's ideal," Ward said, chuckling. "And it made sense."


Virtually anything can find its way into a Nari Ward sculpture - tires, baby strollers, shopping carts, parachute parts, neon signs, burned wooden baseball bats, battered oven pans, shoelaces, megaphones.


He's always on the lookout on the street. You never know.


"It's to a fault sometimes," he said. "Like now, the good thing about having a firehouse [as a home], my basement is the full run of the building. It's a 90-foot basement. It's a lot of space. But now I'm in a situation, let me put it this way, whenever I see the reality show Hoarders, I get a little nervous because I am one step away from that."


"But I can always say it's art."