Published  19/02/2019

Nari Ward – interview: ‘I wouldn't be the artist I am now if I hadn't moved to Harlem’

Nari Ward – interview: ‘I wouldn't be the artist I am now if I hadn't moved to Harlem’

We the People, Nari Ward’s latest exhibition, at New Museum, New York, underlines the critical role the city has played in his career. Here, he discusses the importance of Harlem, the neighbourhood that continues to inform his work


Nari Ward, who was born in Jamaica in 1963, moved to the US at the age of 12. His first major solo show in New York was at the New Museum in 1993, where his now landmark work, Carpet Angel, occupied the gallery. This one-work exhibition alerted viewers to the importance of everyday urban materials in his art. The installation consisted of carpet remnants, plastic bags and bottles, springs taken from furniture, and rope, all of which had been transformed into a two-part sculpture. The composition was candid in its visual power and generated a sense of opulence, despite the references to waste. More than 25 years later, Ward returns to the New Museum with We the People, to present a retrospective that includes in excess of 30 sculptures, paintings, videos and installations, all of which highlight his commitment to accumulating and repurposing humble objects. As the works in the exhibition reveal, Ward’s status as one of the most interesting sculptors working today has stemmed from his ability to imaginatively reconsider the things that surround us.

Allie Biswas: Your first solo exhibition in New York was presented at the New Museum in 1993, and We the People is your first solo museum show in New York since then. Is there a sense of coming full circle with this new exhibition, particularly as it is retrospective in nature?

Nari Ward: Yes, and I think the work ceremonialises that. Carpet Angel was the first work I had shown in a major institution in New York, in the museum’s project space, back in 1993. Having that re-presented here, in this show, on the top floor of the museum, poetically underlines that whole experience. I feel I could drop the mic and leave now. It is great to have this poetic gesture reveal itself through these two exhibitions.

AB: Also, given the importance of New York to your work, having a survey here perhaps brings a very specific resonance?

NW: My formative years as an artist took place in New York, in the 90s, where there was a cultural tumult around Aids and the crack epidemic. It wasn’t just New York, though – urban blight was prevalent across the country. Among a lot of artists who use found objects, there was this feeling of trying to repair the trauma of these events. On the West Coast, there were John Outterbridge, Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy. They were dealing with rebellions and riots. There was this sense of artists coming in and trying to repair this rupture. Using the materials that I chose to work with allowed me to deal with my own experiences with that world; the reality that I was having to negotiate as a person. I definitely wouldn’t be the artist I am now if I hadn’t moved to Harlem in the 1990s.

Nari Ward. Crusader, 2005. Plastic bags, metal, shopping cart, trophy elements, bitumen, chandelier, and plastic containers, 110 x 51 x 52 in (279.4 x 129.5 x 132.1 cm). Installation view: Nari Ward: Re-Presence, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS, 2010. Collection Brooklyn Museum; Purchased with funds given by Giulia Borghese. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

AB: Moving to Harlem proved to be extremely significant for your work – the neighbourhood has informed you for several decades. What is it about that location that first interested you, and how has your relationship with Harlem changed over time?

NW: As soon as I came here to New York, I was dropped into the romantic space of Harlem. My uncle was the superintendent for 409 Edgecombe, an iconic landmark building on 153rd street. Politicians, entertainers – all of them used to live there. The view was over the polo ground, which is where the Yankee Stadium now is. It was this really special place – and maybe created this hyper-idealised expectation for what Harlem was. I got dropped into that and fell in love with that mythology and in some ways wanted to re-immerse myself in it. Then there is this image of Harlem as a destination for immigrants from the south, but also from the Caribbean. New York is called the Big Apple, Harlem is called the Big Mango. A lot of people don’t know that. Then there was the Studio Museum in Harlem, which was a really important platform for me.

AB: You took a residency there very early on, in 1992/1993.

NW: It was a crucial space. Many of the artists I knew had gone through that residency. Harlem at that time was changing, but the art world was also changing. By chance, I ran into Al Loving, an amazing artist. He was a beautiful person, a big guy. When I first met him, he was so approachable and open. He would say: “You’re a young black artist. What do you want to do?” He was really supportive of students. Getting into the system by that point meant getting a graduate degree, something that was a relatively new requirement. I said I wanted to go to Yale. Al told me I needed to see William T Williams. Bill was one of the artists from the generation before me who had gone to get their degree – this stamp of approval – and he had studied at Yale. He was teaching at Brooklyn College, and he became a mentor to me. He thought I had talent and suggested I go to Brooklyn College for a while, also offering to write to Yale. I was meant to stay at Brooklyn for a semester, but ended up staying up much longer, studying with William. These experiences led me to the path that I went on to take.

AB: And William T Williams also founded the Studio Museum Residency programme, which you participated in. Were you conscious of being defined as a black artist during this time, or even later on? In your interview with Lowery Stokes Sims, in the exhibitions catalogue for We the People, you mention an anecdote about being called a Jamaican artist.

NW: As a younger artist, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. But then I thought: “This is a toolbox of possibility. I can use this not just as a problem but as a situation to re-frame my relationship to material and also my relationship to audiences.” It was about not making it a limitation. It was just one more tool that I had. Once I started to think about it like that – the possibility that there could be four or five journeys within a work – I could have these different layers that could be in interesting dialogue with each other. It was more of a maturing realisation, if anything. This one collector I met had used the term “happy Jamaican”, which you made reference to, and I was perturbed for a moment. But then I figured out how to use this as a prop. How do you take a contentious thing and find a way to make it a platform for a visual and conceptual journey that you want to be on?

Nari Ward. Homeland Sweet Homeland, 2012. Cloth, plastic, megaphones, razor wire, feathers, chains, and silver spoons, 96 x 59 3/4 x 10 in (243.8 x 151.8 x 25.4 cm). In collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami; museum purchase with funds provided by Jorge M. Pérez, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the PAMM Ambassadors for African American Art. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

AB: Your experiences have also been defined by your work as a teacher.

NW: My teaching has become really just as important. All through my career as an artist, I have taught. Seeing my students shine is really exciting – the fact that I can have that effect on a young person. I’m in the process of trying to coordinate a residency programme with the Edna Manley College in Jamaica, in collaboration with Hunter College. I want to build momentum and give other people opportunities.

AB: You grew up in Jamaica. When did you move to the US?

NW: I was around 12. We stayed a brief time in Brooklyn, but then were fortunate enough to move to the suburbs, to New Jersey. That was great because the school system was much better there. Then I came back to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. I had wanted to be an illustrator at one point.

AB: I understand that you specialised in drawing during your postgraduate studies at Brooklyn College. When did you first start to think about three-dimensional objects in relation to your art-making?

NW: Well, I am still drawing, but I am using objects to make the marks. It all comes down to being in Harlem. The things I was seeing in spaces in the neighbourhood – such as empty lots – I wanted to tell a story with them. The codes of mark-making (through drawing) were not direct enough for the audience I was trying to connect to. That was important to me – who was the audience? I wanted to acknowledge the art audience, because that was the pedigree I had studied through, but I also wanted to find a way to connect with the folks on the street. It really came down to using these quotidian, everyday objects that I could do my marking with. My drawing has taken on a spatial orientation rather than existing only on a flat plane. With drawing, I was always trying to negotiate the street.

AB: How does your approach change when you are filling a three-dimensional space, rather than making a work that will be put on the wall?

NW: Initially, it was about taking this material that nobody wants and making it a part of the architecture, so that it became its own space. The viewer’s body would have to negotiate the object or the material in a different way. It was this modular thing that could be built into a form that you had to enter and move around. In the newer works, such as the Breathing Circles, I am trying to bring evidence of the body through some kind of imprint or some kind of material. With We the People, it is the shoelaces; in the Breathing works, all of them have some evidence of my presence – whether the soles of my feet, or the shoes I wear to walk across the work. Maybe the earlier works use space more to consider the body.

Nari Ward. T.P. Reign Bow, 2012. Wood, blue tarp, brass grommets, zippers, human hair, and taxidermy fox, 224 x 156 x 270 in (569 x 396.2 x 685.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein.

AB: In terms of process, the way in which you appropriate materials has been connected to recycling traditions in Jamaica, where you grew up. Is this a meaningful association?

NW: I remember being contacted once by somebody who wanted to do an article about “green” artists – those whose work is about recycling. I started talking about my work and the person realised it wasn’t just the system of the environment that I was interested in. That is an aspect of my work, but it’s not the starting point. I have thought a lot about what my relationship to that kind of aesthetic is. In some ways, it is almost coincidental that I am related to those kinds of concerns, because any time you use castoffs to tell a story, and those castoffs are re-evaluated in terms of how they function in the world, there are going to be questions about what that means in relation to the environment. For me, it has always been about transformation – how does this thing that we know become mysterious? And in that mystery, how does it allow the viewer to explore something about their own lives? I have always felt uncomfortable about being pushed into the eco-system of environmentally focused artists.

Also, specifically in relation to Jamaica, to the connection to folks who are in a so-called third-world environment: they have to reuse and make do with materials because of their scarcity. I have always felt very privileged not to have to negotiate that. But, at the same time, I would like to honour the level of invention that those processes involve. Not to romanticise it, but to find ways to poetically have a conversation with that process. I did this work, Tired Seat, car tyres that were stacked and tied together with fire hose, into a seat. I was at a collector’s house and a friend of mine was shown this work, not knowing it was made by me. He was asked what he thought, and he responded: “I can’t look at this third-world crap any more!” I get it: people who are from that space would rather have the store-bought, faux-Victorian chair.

AB: Through your work, you have been able to play with what new and old can mean.

NW: There is a fiction to what new means. For me, re-evaluating what new is, is really interesting. If I am going to take this on, I have the responsibility to ask: “OK, this aesthetic – how do you make it new? How do I make something with these materials that a person with meagre means would really be proud to have in their home?” The idea of bringing elegance to that sensibility is what I have challenged myself to think about.

Nari Ward. Amazing Grace, 1993. Approximately 300 baby strollers and fire hoses, dimensions variable. Installation view: NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, New Museum, New York, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner.

AB: I think you have always made work that emits grandeur and grace. But those qualities have revealed themselves in varying ways. The work you made during the 1990s was object-focused and often large scale. In the 2000s, references to language started to become noticeable, which, formally, resulted in works that could perhaps be described as sparser and more streamlined. I am thinking of We the People (2011), Homeland Sweet Homeland (2012), Canned Smiles (2013) and Apollo/Poll (2017). How did words become important to you?

NW: Even in the early work, the idea of trying to get to that grandeur and to that declarative moment – for the viewer to experience that switchinto an interesting space – was done through repetition. I was always trying to find a pattern that I could repeat. In some ways, through the process of making, I was ritualising the aesthetic through that repetition. In terms of the usage of language, there was a very specific moment. There was one particular word that triggered it. In the neighbourhood I live in, there was an empty lot, which had been empty for 15 or so years. Then, suddenly, this huge fence went up, and there was a notice saying Chase Bank was going to do a construction project there. Over the time I had lived in this area, neighbours wouldn’t pay attention to each other, would never make eye contact. But within a week, all these people I had seen in the area, but never spoken to, started commenting on this construction project. It was a little bit like the weather – it’s a safe thing to talk about. But, also, you don’t have any control over it. I wanted to work with this notion of power. I did a series of works called AfroChase (2010), which used the bank’s logo. I was trying to reposition expectations of what that language meant. I specifically wanted to use logos because they are somehow supposed to be indelible. They are meant to be quick signifiers that you understand and then move away from. But I wanted to make something where you would have to keep questioning what was happening with that entity. That led me to working with things that we take for granted, and finding ways to bring the body back into the conversation.

AB: The newest works in the exhibition are from 2018, Breathing Circles. Can you tell me how this series developed? They suggest the possibilities of materials – their instability and ability to change.

NW: In many ways, this is the closest I have come to being a painter. It’s not about materials on the surface, as a normal painting would be; in fact, it is chemicals that are propagating the change. The chemicals are put on the soles of my feet or are sprayed on to the copper, to create the transformation within the material itself. I never say paintings, I always call these works panels, but they are within that tradition. They are also very exciting to me because they bring the earlier drawing and the expectations of the recent work into some conversation, because, to get that patina, there is a lot of fire involved. I use a flame to burn the surface as I’m putting down the colour. I never know what is going to stick. The change that happens is partly chance. I like that. It brings my earlier pursuits into my new work.

Nari Ward. Iron Heavens, 1995. Oven pans, ironed sterilized cotton, and burnt wooden bats, 140 x 148 x 48 in (355.6 x 375.9 x 121.9 cm). Installation view: Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2016. Collection Jeffrey Deitch. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Studio LHOOQ.

AB: Presumably, there is a lot of room for chance given that a lot of your process first relies of finding materials through random encounters?

NW: Part of it is the choreographing of the formal, and then there is the element of trying to figure out how you can make room for chance. That is what happens to me when I walk out of my studio and I see something on the street that takes me on a journey. It’s that chance occurrence. Then I am thinking, how can I bring that chance occurrence into the studio with me? And that’s what I try to negotiate when I am taking my work into a formal space.

AB: Has your method of collecting objects changed throughout your career?

NW: I am still on the hunt, but now, if I see something and I need more of it, I can go to eBay. The obsession with collecting is different because, now, I can get what I need through other means. This is both good and bad. I would compare it to Googling something versus going to a library, although the latter is so much about a bodily experience that you just can’t dismiss it.

AB: Let’s end by discussing some of the key works in the exhibition. Is there any work in particular that you were particularly happy to be able to show on this occasion?

NW: The one that I hadn't seen in a long time is Blue Window – Brick Vine. I look at it and think: “Who the hell made that?” I showed it in the exhibition that culminated in my Studio Museum residency in 1993, and a collector bought it. I ran into a curator five years later and asked after this collector. Apparently, he had stopped collecting. Anyway, it just so happened that the piece came up in conversation when we were putting together the New Museum show. We Googled the work and it came up at the Columbus Museum of Art. It turns out that the museum had displayed it in its galleries for a long time. So, when a crate arrived at the New Museum and they opened it up, that work really resonated. The work involves the weaving of cloth and feathers, and these metal pieces I had found. Ultimately, it was an altar. I think all of the works are somehow negotiating the unknown. They are trying to emphasise the power of the imagination to heal, but also to reconsider possibilities. I am bringing all of these materials in that are meant to suggest a transformation of energy. The idea is to keep drilling holes and to keep building the work. In a lot of ways it has been about this thing, which I have been happy enough to try and figure out how to keep – this inquiry into not being sure about what I am going to or what I would like to do. It’s about making these things that are interesting and evocative and problematic, and then figuring out how they are going to interact within a space.

Nari Ward: We the People is at the New Museum, New York until 26 May 2019.

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