Nari Ward on Reimagining the Immigrant Experience, and Why Miami Is the Perfect Backdrop for His Latest Show
In Nari Ward’s “Sun Splashed”—a series of photographs he composed and directed but which were snapped by his friend, artist Lee Jaffe—Ward stands soaking wet and stoic in the living rooms of different apartments, clutching or enclosed by plants. He is as much a keeper of secrets as of flora. The artist wears clothing owned by his uncle, a former member of The Happy Smilers (a Jamaican mento band) and plays with the role of the happy Jamaican—the ever-joyful black minstrel, sunny as his homeland. Ward both subverts and elevates this cultural myth. In spite of his apparent discomfort, his sweat, the character is distinguished. He is dignified.
The largest showcase of Ward’s work to date, now open at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), takes the same name as that series: “Sun Splashed.” Curated by Diana Nawi, PAMM’s associate curator, Ward’s mid-career retrospective features selections of his work from the 1990s to the present, spanning various mediums and themes. Common across Ward’s craft is the requirement of intense labor to create immersive structures that involve at least two of the viewer’s senses, the ritualistic reuse of discarded objects, and constant, subtle references to the human body. Whether politically or culturally aligned, an exploration of humanity remains central to his work.
“Sun Splashed” serves as a worthy lens through which to view Miami. And the city—sinking but beautiful, rife with issues surrounding immigration, and rooted in its mix of African-American, Latin-American, and Caribbean identities—provides the ultimate context for Ward’s practice. Ward was born in Jamaica and raised in New York and New Jersey from the age of 12. And much of his practice stems from memory and personal history. But larger, more public and political themes are also present in the show: We The People, a massive work depicting the Constitution’s eponymous phrase using hand-dyed shoelaces, quite literally interlaces personal effects with American ideology; Canned Smiles features a tin can labeled “Jamaican Smiles” and another labeled “Black Smiles,” which speaks to the simultaneous dichotomy and union of racial and national identity. (To “capture” the ephemeral, Ward smiled into the former and his children smiled into the latter.)
Speaking to Artsy ahead of his PAMM opening, Ward homed in on this more expansive approach his craft has taken in recent years.
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.
MU: Especially with the lack of distinction between the virtual self and the physical body. We’re often very distracted, whether by our phones or our overactive brains. In your references to the body and to spirituality, you bring viewers back to the self.
NW: I’m trying to pull them back inside. How do you create emotional shelters for them to think about what they might know, or what they think they know? The key thing is to create a sidecar expectation for the viewer. They may think they’re going down the highway a particular way, but then you create another moment for them within that. I think that’s how people grow.
MU: Much of the writing about your work focuses on labor, which is extremely significant, but this particular exhibition seems to explore other storylines, such as those of race and culture. What has it been like to address those narratives?
NW: There is a very particular narrative here. I think that is what Diana was hoping for—to talk about my different experiences and reinforce them with works that had similar interests. That happens in the show in a way that is, for me, strange, because it’s a clarity I had never pursued. I’m seeing things and Diana will help point out, “This is the street. This is the Caribbean. This is this moment.” I had never looked at my work like that, because I don’t have the distance. This has given me the distance to think about those propositions, and I’m not resisting it.
MU: The Caribbean, immigration, race, and power dynamics probably feel particularly present in this show because we are in Miami.
NW: For me, that’s an important component. I’m realizing now how new this city is, in a sense. There are a lot of very strange and interesting combinations happening here, and I feel like there’s a backdrop and understanding for the work that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. You may not necessarily agree with some of the criticism or dialogue around those subjects, but it’s a rich conversation. As Tobias (Ostrander, PAMM’s chief curator) was saying, Naturalization Drawing Table (2004) stimulated dialogue about people’s experiences in the bureaucratic structure of immigration. This is a very interesting range of references, and I like that.
MU: Can you discuss the ways that spirituality permeates your work?
NW: I think that comes up with, for example, the Savior (1996) piece. It’s critical of the church—I grew up Baptist—and this idea that, a lot of the time, the church isn’t doing what it can do with people’s trust. It’s activism. I feel like the activist mindset starts in a very personal space—and I’m always trying to say I’m not necessarily an activist. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to think about this particular situation, but I want them to think, and to be open to thinking about it.
We have a tendency to shut things down, and that’s become our way to survive. It’s necessary to be a participant in the evolution of an idea. The media can be a monolith and bring an overload of voices, which is a strategy to disengage people. We have to find a way to feel connected, and I think that happens through the body. Bringing the body back into the work is so important to me.
MU: There are so many references to the body in your work—shoelaces, baby carriages, etc.
NW: The senses, and how to get them in conversation with the mind—and not just have the brain take on the task of evaluating and understanding—is important. The bodily, the visceral, need to be part of the conversation. That is the only way things don’t become about nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting thing—it’s about memory, about another place. But the body is about bringing it into the moment. That moment is where the spiritual resides: when you can keep somebody in the moment as long as possible.
MU: What a great way to reference your use of discards and found objects, too, because you’re bringing them back into the moment.
NW: They’re also recognizable. I want to have a discourse with the contemporary art world, but I want the guy on the street who doesn’t know anything about it to have an involvement in the work, as well. I feel like using the thing that’s recognizable and transforming it is a starting point for that, to have both these realities happen. And the challenge is: can you get both of those communities into the same work?