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Nari Ward Looks Back at Two Decades of Work in "Sun Splashed" at PAMM

As more museums come into bloom, the challenge becomes how to retain an institution's individual identity while speaking to the immediate environment. "Sun Splashed," the latest exhibition at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), goes a long way towards establishing a relationship with South Florida's Caribbean roots while retaining a resolutely high art perspective. The show — a survey of over two decades of work from Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-based artists Nari Ward — is comprised of installations, highly performative sculptural pieces, photographs, as well as other mix media works. 

 

"At the museum we're trying to speak to the Caribbean influences that run through Miami's culture, and Ward's work goes a long way in that respect as one of the most respected Jamaican artists today," explained PAMM Associate Curator Diana Nawi. Together with Ward, Nawi, and recently appointed Director Franklin Sirmans went through the arduous task of putting together a show that encapsulated the various themes and mediums that ran through the artist's career.

 

Despite the varied nature of the show, several key themes kept rearing their heads. Ward is inextricably fascinated with the Jamaican and Caribbean diaspora. Although he was born on Jamaica, it was the uptown streets of Harlem that raised him and formed much of his aesthetic sensibilities.

 

Yet, his homeland reappears throughout his work. For example, in Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping (1996) Ward recreates a New York/Jamaican storefront complete with an awning and sodas. As the viewers enter the space, they're greeted with the light sounds of a proto-reggae band. Though the men in the troupe were urban professionals, they enacted the role of a stereotypical blithe Jamaican bumpkin for financial gain.

 

"Acting the part wasn't just kitsch, it was about survival," imparted Ward.

 

That same dichotomy is present in a photographic series also titled Sun Splashed (2013) taken while Ward was living in Rome. The series portrays the artists in stereotypical Jamaican garb — complete with a straw hat and a bright pink shirt, always with a solemn look clutching a potted plant — shot at the homes of various well-to-do collectors in-and-around the Italian capital. In a more candid way, Ward plays on interplay between ethnic stereotypes, and acting out those same generalizations for personal gain. Though a much different context than his uncle's band, the same ethnic tensions are at play in the art market.

 

Ward's own personal struggle to establish his own identity in the face of a bureaucratic morass is perfectly encapsulated in Naturalization Drawing Table (2004). The Plexiglas table frames and the ten paged INS form with Ward's meticulous line drawings really gives the viewer a sense of the tremulous process. Ward began the process to establish dual citizenship back in 1996, but he admits that it was mostly sheer procrastination that dragged it out. When the piece is fully activated, notaries will stand behind the desk and have audience members fill out paper work, stamp, and seal the documents in order to receive an envelop with Ward's drawings. The quid-pro-quo aspect is meant to draw the attendant in to the artist's emotional frustration with the process.