Monica Uszerowicz: Did you make art as a child? You work with many forms of symbolism and metaphor, but one gets the sense of magical realism, because the work—and the way you revive objects—feels regenerative.
Nari Ward: I like that. Magic realism is, for me, a powerful way to talk about time and how time isn’t straight: yesterday, today, tomorrow. There are all these different correlations of time that can be intersected. In some ways, I feel that’s what I’m trying to do: flip what the normal expectation might be. Early on, I didn’t have family members that made art. I came from a lower middle class family, and they thought this was the worst decision.
MU: They weren’t supportive?
NW: They were supportive, but at the same time they felt, “This is a disaster.” The models they had were the media models of the distraught and tragic artist—not the one making a living, supporting a family as part of the community. I think that model created a lot of anxiety regarding the notion of what an immigrant narrative should be, which is: you do better than the generation before. But I was excited about using my hands to recreate what I knew, or to create what might be possible.
At first, when I was drawing, I realized, “I can parrot. I can repeat what they know, get on a very high level with this craft, and get some praise.” It was about getting that validation from my classmates. When I came from Jamaica, I spent a little bit of time in Brooklyn, and then we moved to New Jersey. It was a very different environment. We were the only black family in that town at the time, and I felt very culturally alienated. When they saw that I had this skill to draw, I became special in a different way. I latched onto that. That’s how I came into the expectation of being an artist.
MU: Children who could draw in elementary school were always quite popular, because they could somehow capture things you wanted.
NW: Yeah, you had this power to recreate something. Now that’s kind of gone out of the mix because of what can be done on computers. It’s not as sought-after anymore. For young people who want to be artists, it’s much more about this notion of brand—how they deal with identity. Identity, I think, is going to be a big topic moving forward, even more than it is now.