Nari Ward is one of the most important contemporary artists in America today. His work routinely features in the biggest museum shows. I had the opportunity to see Nari Ward “We the People” when it was installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
There should be people here. Instead, there are only traces.
Shoelaces. Baby strollers. Baseball bats.
The absence gives Nari Ward’s work a post-apocalyptic feel. His installations ache for humans.
What happened here?
What happened to these people?
When Ward created these works beginning in the early 1990s, the answer could have been the AIDS or crack epidemics. A modern reading calls to mind COVID-19 and police brutality. The universal messages inherit in Ward’s work remain as current today as they were when he launched his career.
“Nari has been making work that reckons with (America’s racial inequality) for decades, the rest of the world is just catching up to him now,” Nora Burnett Abrams, MCA Denver’s Mark G. Falcone Director, told me when I was writing about an exhibition of Ward’s work at the museum.
Nari Ward “We the People”
The exhibit, “We the People,” features a selection of sculptures, paintings, videos and large-scale installations from throughout Ward’s career.
The show’s title references a signature piece, the opening words of the United States Constitution “drawn” in imitation of that document’s iconic handwritten lettering with shoelaces.
“He wants anyone who encounters the work to connect with it and by using materials like shoelaces, that everyone can relate to, whether or not you have a background in contemporary art, it allows you a way into the work,” Abrams explains.
The shoelaces also act as stand-ins.
“Many of them are bright and vibrant and every color imaginable, every pattern imaginable, in a sense you can see them in a celebratory way of embodying the many different types people who live in this country and who are citizens as indicated by the preamble to the Constitution,” Abrams said of the laces. “On the other hand, it has a very mournful quality to it, there is a common memorial association of throwing shoes–via the shoelace, dangling over telephone lines–in urban areas to mark the passing of a life at that spot.”
The Jamacian-born Ward who now lives in Harlem has accumulated a staggering stockpile of found objects–humble objects–like shoelaces. And baby strollers. It took him roughly three months to acquire the 365 baby strollers used in the installation Amazing Grace (1993), another desolate work which begs onlookers to ask, “Where are the people?”
“In so many of his works, it’s about summoning a bodily presence–embodying without a body–calling out the bodies of the past and bringing them into the present,” Abrams said. “(Amazing Grace) is very much about the loss of life that you saw behind these strollers.”
Amazing Grace, which also incorporates used fire hoses, was transported to Denver packed in crates occupying an entire semi-truck. With Ward and his assistant unable to travel due to coronavirus, the intricate installation was done via Zoom and Facebook with the MCA Denver team on one end and the artist on the other.
While the strollers and hoses occupying the center of the installation have specific placements, the remainder are determined collaboratively between the artist and institution. With the artwork being exhibited in different institutions, different sized rooms with different dimensions, it’s never displayed exactly the same twice.
Ward’s work confronts racism and power, migration and national identity, and the layers of historical memory that comprise our sense of community and belonging. All topics now on the front burner of American society. Abrams believes Ward’s art “catalyzes conversation” around these issues, challenging audiences to investigate how we arrived here as a country.
“He’s described ‘We the People’ as a sleepy phrase, it’s not something that we hear in common parlance as we go about our lives; it’s jarring to see that phrase, which is so powerful in the American psyche, rendered in the way he’s rendered it and I think it forces us to think about it in a far more rigorous way than we have been,” Abrams said. “I think that is at the heart of his practice, finding these moments of the past and waking them up from the past so we can see how relevant they are today, understanding and connecting with a shared history, not viewing it as separate, but viewing it as a collective is an important and vital way for us to come back together as a country.”