Between the Ancestors and the Living: Nari Ward at the New Museum
Nari Ward: We the People at the New Museum
February 13 to May 26, 2019
235 Bowery, at Rivington Street
New York City, newmuseum.org
This exhibition offers a unique window onto the black experience. Nari Ward is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist whose career spans twenty-five years. His work is composed primarily of found objects from the street in New York, Harlem in particular, that critiques and subverts conversations around capitalism, poverty, and race. His New Museum retrospective fills three floors with assemblage, sculpture, painting, video, and installation in an exhibition that, in generously embracing and provocative ways explores how crime, justice, care, violence, and economics all have a stake in what it means to be a responsible citizen. Found, humble, everyday objects are shown to contain a web of epistemological and linguistic meanings and connections that can twist and propel the past and the present. With Ward, nothing is exactly as it seems, as his objects are stripped of original meanings and given new ones. And however much his semiotic disobedience stems from intuitions of questioning and refusal, his creativity nevertheless connects us to his life in Harlem, to social sculpture, and to a variety of folk traditions in Jamaica, where he was born.
I vividly remember my first encounter with Nari Ward. It was at a show of his from 2015 at Lehmann Maupin in the Lower East Side that incorporated a whole series of performances by guest artists that took place on top of his Ground (In Progress), a large square floor piece composed of copper bricks. There were many stunning performances there and the artists involved have gone on to other great things. Sticking in my memory were performances by Niv Acosta and by several of Ward’s former students from Hunter College, Zachary Fabri and Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow amongst them.
At the New Museum, Ground (In Progress) lay inert in the middle of a room, surrounded by stoic guards and grip tape. The walls of this room are filled with a number of large paintings done on copper panels through a process of patina, etching, drilling, and hammering nails. Each work is slightly different, but with a recurring symbol in them all: the cosmogram. The Bakongo cosmogram, to which Nari refers, is an ideographic religious Congolese symbol for the cosmos and the continuity of life that can comprise a cross, a quartered circle or diamond, or a seashell spiral. Describing its importance, Robert Farris Thompson has written that “a person stands upon it to take an oath, or to signify that he or she understands the meaning of life as a process shared with the dead below the river or the sea…[in Kongolese ritual] the real sources of earthly power and prestige”. These cosmological symbols exist in many other instances around the world such as the Catholic Church, The Klu Klux Klan, the Confederate flag, the Jamaican flag, alchemical treatises, mandalas, etc., and artists such as Adrian Piper and Jean-Michel Basquiat have also been known to also employ cosmograms in their own work. In this exhibition, the cosmogram refers to the transatlantic transfer of this African spiritual symbol preserved in black churches throughout America. In Savannah, Georgia, the First African Baptist Church was a stopping post in the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. The former slaves would hide under the floorboards in the basement of the church and a breathing hole was drilled for them in the shape of a quartered cross. Imagine hiding below floor decks, pitch black, situating yourself between life and death, and this is the only light you can see. This symbol beams out of each of these paintings as a point of intersection between the ancestors and the living.
During his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1992-93, the young Ward filled his studio with old ragged baby strollers collected from neighborhood streets, culminating in the installation Amazing Grace, where a large room was filled with hundreds of them. There is a middle cluster where about a third of all the strollers are tied with fire hoses in the shape of an oval, Virgin mandala, or a ship. The rest of the strollers circle around the center shape in attention while a gospel recording of “Amazing Grace” plays soulfully from the strollers in the middle. The fire hoses on the ground and on the strollers trigger, for me, Civil Rights era riots from the 1960s where black protesters were sprayed down by police with pressurized water from fire hydrants, literally soaking their dignity. I was personally very moved by this room because for me it symbolizes the intimate, existential struggle between black youth, white supremacy, and religion. A journey made from the void of absent young bodies, and for each missing, a fiery potential extinguished. Adjacent rooms evoke similar conceptual and metaphorical themes through a range of assemblage-based street sculpture, such as a wounded lion, shopping cart monuments, and the abject caramelized remains of the drink “Tropical Fantasy”, a beverage widely marketed to black communities in the ‘90s that contained ingredients, believed then and now, to affect male fertility.
If an idea is not sensitive to the poor it can neither be radical nor revolutionary. Several things are known. The planet can no longer sustain capitalism. African-Americans literally planted the seeds of imperial wealth in this country. As an artist creating a body of work that actively works around capitalism instead of with it, Ward creates a voice for those neglected by the system, those forsaken by legislation, history, politics, and justice. We the People offers a walk in another citizen’s shoes. Ward’s evocative readymade conjuring of the human condition teaches us profound lessons about ourselves.