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Nari Ward: The story behind an artwork in the artist's own words
Modern Painters

The is a performative piece that I first made in 2004, inspired by my application for citizenship. It took me a while; I would always get distracted because it’s a 10-page application. The papers would end up sitting on my desk, turning into an art material. So I decided I wanted to do a work that talked about the process of applying for citizenship, but correlating that with the idea of being part of a community. I took the pages of the application and make a series of drawing on them. Some of the drawings recall the schematics of colonial fortresses in Jamaica, the country where I was born. But in face they’re also just kind of meandering scribbles of space. They reference an honor the Jamaican artist John Dunkley, who painted these strange landscapes that suggest tunnels or holes.


The premise behind the piece is that you apply for the set of prints packaged in an official embossed envelope. So, viewers who come to the Naturalization Table bring an ID, have their individual photos take, and fill out an application. Then they go to the other side of the table, where there is a notary who validated the information and stamps the form with the photos attached. The notary asks, “Do you know what you’re participating in? Do you understand your rights?” It’s a legal document, and you have to be of legal age to participate. And in exchange for that and your image, you get the suite of prints.


The actual table is made from the old Plexiglas and register shields that fronted my local bodega, where you’d exchange goods and money through that kind of tunnel, or box. I liked the idea of this boundary space, and using it as the table made total sense as the object over which to negotiate this contract. The interesting point of dialogue is that it prompted people to share their experiences and anxiety around this kind of structure and I’m excited about the face that the work gathers viability—it’s really valid only if we have your image. In theory, the piece doesn’t function if you sell it to a collector. The prints become nullified once someone else, who did not participate, takes ownership. It’s validated only by your being part of the piece.


Nari Ward: Sun Splashed will be on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia from June 24 through August 22.