Artist Nari Ward is known for transforming found and discarded objects into mysterious, allusive sculptures and installations. His work often has sociopolitical overtones, percolating with questions about race, police brutality, immigration, and authority. Filtered through Ward’s fertile and poetic imagination, anger and uncertainty unfold to reveal the existence of other possibilities, such as hope and redemption. Examples of the Jamaican-born, New York-based artist’s worldview are currently on view in a solo exhibition, “So-Called,” at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, curated by Laurie Ann Farrell.
Visitors enter the SCAD exhibition through a narrow room that opens onto a larger space, offering a sweeping view of Ward’s nearly 12-foot-tall “snowmen” in the distance. The three large sculptures resemble snowmen in form only, however. They are the opposite of smooth, white, or sparkly, and the sight of them in the next gallery promises intriguing possibilities to come.
But in this first room, Ward finds a new association in a familiar urban signifier in LiquorsouL, a salvaged liquor store sign that juts out from a wall, its vertical letters turned upside down—with the exception of the letters S, O, U, and L. Canned Smiles consists of two tin cans, one black with yellow letters that says “Black Smiles” and the other yellow with black letters that says “Jamaican Smiles.” Ward seems to be challenging the viewer to figure out how to absorb the politically charged nature of the piece—are we supposed to laugh? Is it funny, sad, both? Is the work autobiographical, reflecting Ward’s lineage as an American black man born in Jamaica, as well as his identity as an artist in his interpretation of Piero Manzoni’s canned Merda d’Artista?
Much of Ward’s work invites questions, with each question holding the possibility of many answers. This is the basis of the powerful relationship Ward creates between himself, his art, and those who experience his art. Ward’s own life experiences form the basis of his work. He came to the US from Jamaica when he was 12 years old and eventually settled in Harlem, where he still resides. Many of the ideas for his installations emerge from discarded objects he finds on the streets. Shoes and shoelaces are recurring items, appearing in at least four of his pieces in the SCAD exhibition. We The People is monumental in concept and execution. Holes were made in the gallery wall and 5,257 shoelaces were pulled through them to form the three words that begin the Preamble to the Constitution. From a distance, the multicolored shoelaces call to mind dripping paint. Up close, their sheer number and the impossibility of separating the idea of a shoelace from a shoe and its wearer creates a feeling of human connectedness to the text. The shoelaces and their implied humanity deliver the words into existence, not the other way around.
Scape also uses shoelaces but in a wonderfully illusory way. This time Ward depicts a two-dimensional subject, a fire escape, using his colorful dangling shoelaces to define depth, height, and dimension. In Swing, Ward uses shoes to tap into a collective emotional experience. Dozens of shoes are embedded in a tire, which hangs from the ceiling by a heavy rope tied like a noose.
Homeland Sweet Homeland is one of Ward’s most pointedly political works in the exhibition, made in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, where he was an artist-in-residence in 2011. Quilted white cotton forms the background for a silver- and gold-embroidered first-person narrative of the Miranda Rights: “I wish to speak to my attorney now. I will not waive any of my constitutional rights.” This is topped by a cotton banner that unfurls against the black-feathered breast of a bald eagle; the banner reads, “Notice to Police Officers and Prosecutors.” The lush metallic threads and gleaming feathers are joined by harsher objects that Ward has appropriated as symbols of authority: razor wire, megaphones, heavy chain. The blatant message of Homeland is in sharp contrast to the more symbolic We The People. Both pieces were made around the time that Ward started the process of becoming a US citizen, in 2012 and 2011 respectively.
Now, about those snowmen … titled Mango Tourists, it’s hard to perceive the work as anything but light-hearted and fanciful. The shapes are immediately identifiable, but not the materials they are made of. The forms are shaped from golden-brown woven strips that suggest something organic, such as wood or rattan, but are actually industrial foam. Embedded in the foam are battery canisters, electric capacitors, and—the only organic element—mango pits. Once again Ward has created chimerical objects whose meaning can only be guessed at, but which nevertheless radiate an indefinable energy and unmistakable magic.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, Spellbound, was commissioned by SCAD for the exhibition and is located outside on the museum’s west end courtyard. In the grassy, open area sits a small, old wooden structure that the museum identifies as a “historic candy shop rescued from demolition by a local wood salvage yard.” Up the small rickety wooden steps and through the door that stands ajar, one enters the single room whose walls resonate with age and a deep sense of the past. In the center of the room is an old upright piano; hanging on nails hammered into the front of the piano are rows and rows of metal door keys. On the back of the piano is a monitor framed by Spanish moss, which plays a film made by Ward in Savannah. The room is quiet but for the music from the video, sometimes discordant, sometimes tuneful, interspersed with spoken and sung words that are repeated, poetic and dirge-like. “I could feel their presence,” intones the soundtrack; we see a street vendor weaving flowers out of palm fronds. The lost keys on the piano flutter almost imperceptibly in the breeze, and gleam in the fractured beams of sunlight. Once again, Ward offers intriguing pieces to a puzzle that is open to interpretation. The layers of meaning are imbued with a sense of nostalgia, memory, and life’s possibilities, past and present. We are willingly carried into this feeling of abundance with him.
Nari Ward’s “So-Called” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, through June 27.
Caroline Stover is a resident of Atlanta who works in publishing and artist representation. She is also a participant in BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.