Nari Ward’s recent mid-career retrospective, “We the People,” on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston through November 30, 2019, takes its title from one of his best-known works. There could not be a more appropriate choice—this scaled-up rendering of the first three words in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution fashioned from shoestrings pulled through holes in a wall encapsulates Ward’s concerns, facility with materials, and ability to tease out layers of meaning through juxtaposition and presentation.
The earliest works in the show, inspired by the resourcefulness of the Harlem community where Ward resides, purposefully remix cast-off items found on the street. Shopping carts, baby strollers, an umbrella, and iron fences form the foundation for sculptural constructions, which combine such seemingly incongruous items as chairs, trophy parts, plastic gasoline cans, even a chandelier. Some pieces are overlaid with woven webs of twisted plastic bags and string, while others, like Sky Juice and Trophy (both 1993), are coated with a gelatinous glaze of sugar and Tropical Fantasy soda. Ward’s materials are meant to evoke multiple associations, including, in later works, ties linking sugar, the plantation, and the slave trade and the connection between sugary sodas and health issues, particularly among black Americans. Hunger Cradle (1996), an evolving sprawl of yarn and string (Ward adds objects at every venue), ensnares many things from daily life, including piano keys, a tire, a fan, a computer keyboard, and a cradle. Suspended from the ceiling, defying gravity and touch, this assemblage-like construction oscillates between a meditation on everyday needs and the never-ending desire for and entanglement with possessions.
Several pieces from this early period continue to elicit complex reactions even as their originating narratives have faded. Amazing Grace (1993), an installation of fire hoses and nearly 300 abandoned baby strollers first shown at a firehouse in Harlem, originally referred to the crack epidemic, AIDS, and homelessness sweeping through that neighborhood. Now, as one walks through the strollers along a pathway formed from the hoses while listening to Mahalia Jackson sing the gospel song of the title, it is hard not to think of family separations and the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the border. Once again, Ward’s juxtapositions produce multiple layers of reference, from birth and loss to remembrance and renewal, to the continuing struggle for civil rights. Fire hoses not only serve to extinguish fires, but also to disperse protestors. When cut and rolled up, as in Exodus (1993), those same hoses become metaphorical rafts or discarded bundles of possessions.
Iron Heavens (1995) is even more direct. Wooden bats, charred and piled high in front of a wall of overlapping broiler plates to resemble a shrine, allude to sports as a means of advancement for African American men while also implying the potential for violence. The altar-like installation and amulet-like cotton balls dipped in sugar attached to each bat add a mediating narrative of redemption and change.
In the early 2000s, Ward focused more directly on identity and immigration, using the tactics of provocation, irony, and humor to serve up a discordant dialogue with the times. In Glory (2004), made at the beginning of the Iraq War, he converted oil barrels into a working tanning bed that if used would imprint a pattern of stars and stripes on the body, thereby conflating patriotism with skin color and branding. This absurd, casket-like container calls to mind the many ways that bodies are marked and controlled, whether by slavery, war, or modern-day marketing, while exposing the ties between oil, nationalism, and power in the Middle East. Naturalization Drawing Table (2004), constructed from the same clear acrylic plastic found in bulletproof partitions and covered with logos and ads for cigarettes and sugary sodas, as well as Ward’s doodled drawings on naturalization forms, immerses viewers in the naturalization process. Participants fill out a modified INS form, which is then photographed, notarized, and publicly displayed, a process that transforms everyone into an immigrant in search of citizenship.
As Ward makes clear, the quest for status and identity is not without troubled double meanings, especially for men of color. Homeland Sweet Homeland (2012) riffs on the official language and formal “rules” that encode authority, power, and privilege. On close inspection, a homey wall hanging becomes a chilling, cautionary warning, conjoining a legal-looking notice to the police listing individual legal rights (embroidered in gold) with references to incarceration that include megaphones, razor wire, and chains.
The tarp-covered T.P. Reign Bow (2012) continues Ward’s consideration of the power dynamic between police and community. A tower, resembling those used by the police to watch over inner-city neighborhoods, looms above the space. A cascade of sewn-together zippers falls down in a spiral from a high window, suggesting Rapunzel’s hair; but there is no escape from scrutiny here—the zip line is unsustainable, watched over by a taxidermy fox that, coupled with the tower’s soaring scale and dominant blue color, makes it clear that all are ensnared in the ominous implied power of surveillance.
Though Ward’s installations sustain an intense, in-your-face physicality, they are often tempered by an affirmation of spirituality and heritage, which makes them more inclusionary than antagonistic. Spellbound (2015), created for a residency at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia, consists of a piano covered with keys and Spanish moss and a video that explores the neighborhood surroundings, including a key-maker’s shop and the First African Baptist Church, the oldest African American Baptist church in the country. Doubling as a hiding place for the Underground Railroad, this church had breathing holes drilled into its floor in the form of a Kongo cosmogram, a diamond bisected with a cross. Inspired by these African prayer symbols, along with Bakongo fetish objects, Ward’s most recent series of floor sculptures and wall reliefs—fabricated out of copper sheets covering bricks and wood, copper wire, and nails, and collectively entitled “Breathing Circles” (2018)—recall hidden codes and rituals, with their grids of symbols and signs conveying alternative pathways.
Ward’s work has been linked with the concept of creolization, a process of blending together different elements to create a new cultural identity while also refusing assimilation. Addressing community, origins, identity, the social narratives within materials, and the doubled meaning of living in today’s world, he allows us all to discover the liberating, transformative potential of immersing “We the People” in creole principles.