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Nari Ward’s found object sculptures explore history and power
Financial Times

By Ariella Budick

Jamaican-born Nari Ward uses everyday objects to make sculptures that explore history and power

Every new arrival has a story about becoming a New Yorker, and usually it involves real estate. That’s especially true of the Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward, whose sculptures and installations — the subject of a major retrospective at the Pérez Art Museum Miami — demand hefty quantities of square footage. In 1993, for instance, he gathered a fleet of discarded baby strollers more than 300 strong, and arranged them into “Amazing Grace”, which buzzes with abandonment, grief and memory. Finding somewhere to exhibit that work is never an easy task.

“I was looking for a church, because I really wanted to create a transcendent experience,” Ward recalls. “A buddy of mine said, ‘Hey, I know an old firehouse.’” The narrow, three-storey building in Central Harlem was a little lacking in spiritual aura, but at least it had a suitable next-door neighbour, the Church of the Meek: Ward filled the firehouse with his collection of strollers.

More than 20 years later, we meet in the same space, which now serves as his studio. He’s well defended against the cold that seeps through the large doors: jacket, scarf and one of his ever-present hats. The ground floor is pleasingly cluttered the way only an artist’s can be: a Smart car armoured in sliced-up tires sits in the foyer; Ward plans to grow a tree through the sun roof and hoist the whole thing on to the city’s High Line walkway in the spring. Next to his overflowing desk, a life-sized human skeleton appears to be receiving IV fluids beneath a clear dome.

“I get inspired by things that don’t fit in,” he says. “I find an object that speaks to me, and there’s always something out of place about it. Out of place-ness is a New York thing.”

For a long time, Ward and his wife Noemi felt bracingly uneasy in a neighbourhood they considered dangerous. But Harlem was changing: in 1993, there were 66 murders in his precinct, the 32nd. Last year, there were six. The demographics were shifting, too: by 2010, African-Americans no longer constituted a majority in the neighbourhood once known as the capital of black America. Manhattanville Coffee, on the corner, looks like an outpost of coolest Brooklyn, and is priced accordingly.

Urban evolution has a way of sneaking up on longtime New Yorkers and disrupting their tranquility, and in Ward’s case it has sometimes even altered the meaning of his art. Take his 1996 “Happy Smilers”, for example. Behind a Jamaican-style yellow awning is a sunny emporium of discarded housewares, furniture and bric-a-brac, assembled into tight constructions and wrapped in lengths of fire hose. The out of place-ness is hard to miss. Two decades ago, he says, “it was about creating this sense of home, and having the viewer experience it as a theatrical moment. A fire hose is a metaphor for transformation. It’s associated with saving lives, but also with water and fire, which are regenerative elements.” At this remove, though, the objects in “Happy Smilers” that seemed startlingly current have become mementoes.

“Nostalgia can be magical, but it can also be a trap. My challenge is to have these longings for another time also be a visceral experience.” Ward worries that as the objects age, they become abstract. He wants his works to retain their physicality and viewers to feel their weight and sense their texture, as well as their “sociopolitical context”.

I ask him for a sociopolitical exegesis of the upside-down sign glowing quietly on the wall. Read from bottom to top, it spells “Liquors”, with the I, Q, and R unlit. Read the other way, and skipping the missing letters, the sign says “Soul.”

“I pulled these signs down from buildings where the landlord didn’t even know they were there,” Ward says. His gift lies not just in grabbing derelict castaways but in giving them a resonance that is both personal and broad. “Alcohol is a material of transformation, associated with rites of passage,” he explains, and it’s a short associative hop from “spirits” to “soul”.

As the zone around his firehouse gentrifies, it becomes tougher for a professional scavenger to do his job. Fortunately, his territory has widened. Recently, while preparing for a one-man show at the Savannah College of Art and Design, he visited the First African Baptist Church, which, before the Civil War, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A guide pointed out holes in the floor drilled in the pattern of cosmograms, two-dimensional depictions of the universe.

“They were breathing holes for escaped slaves who were hiding underneath. The configuration was actually a Congolese symbol that means life, death and rebirth. When these people were down below and looking up, they would see this light and it was life.”

The result of this encounter with the past was “Breathing Directions”, a set of large copper rectangles covered with African patterns. But the work wasn’t finished until he had experienced it the way he does the sidewalks of New York: by walking on it. “I put a patina on the sole of my shoes and danced on top of the copper.”

Ward refers frequently to the physicality of his art — both the visceral experience he hopes to give viewers and the demands on his own muscles, “that mind/body connection that happens with labour and repetition”. He savours menial tasks that the art world holds in ill repute these days, when conceptualism rules and an entrepreneur like Jeff Koons can outsource his fantasies to fabricators. “This playing down of labour is a contemporary art trope. It’s a question of whether you’re aligned with intellectual prowess or with craft. I like to think that I’m trying to bring the two together.”

Still, the pressure to work less hard can get intense. “My friend [the artist David Hammons] started ribbing me once: ‘Nari, people love to see you sweat.’ He was trying to get my goat. He said, ‘They’re not interested in paying you for your thought, they just want to put you back on the plantation.’ So I made a work that continued the conversation. It’s called ‘Sweater’ and it’s a close-up of the sweat running down my forehead. Except I was in a sauna, totally relaxed.”

Ward is 53 now, with a son in college and a gold-plated reputation. He doesn’t feel the same need to prowl the sidewalks for inspiration: even a changed city offers an invigorating background of furore, and the firehouse a place to retreat with his imagination.

“New York makes a noise I need. I might just be sitting quietly at home with a glass of wine but I know there’s this intensity out there, a fast-moving train that I can get on any time I want.”

‘Nari Ward: Sun Splashed’ is at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, to February 21,