by Hannah Gentry
Recently, The Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston displayed Jamaican-American artist Nari Ward’s exhibition We The People. From the moment visitors walk through the door, they are confronted with the preamble to the Constitution of the United States sculpted with multicolored shoelaces in Old English lettering. These three historical words that the exhibition centers around, depict the core values of the Constitution, which include justice, freedom, and equality. However, with America’s brutal past of slavery revealing the hypocrisy and bias behind these rights, Nari Ward asks: who is “we” referring to? Ward’s contemporary art speaks about cultural history in a new language. He uses words, but he also uses images, sculptures, and music. He creates a way of conversing with others about unspeakable hardships and confronts those willing to listen with the inescapable truth behind America’s past, present, and future.
Ward collects empty bottles, old fire hoses, and various broken objects discarded on the streets of Harlem, and he repurposes these objects in his work. Ward’s goal in doing this is to give a visual illustration on issues related to consumer culture, poverty, and race. For example, his piece Amazing Grace is comprised of 280 abandoned strollers in various states of disrepair that he found around Harlem. These strollers often get reused by the homeless to carry their belongings. For his exhibit, Ward scattered hundreds of these strollers across a field of flattened fire hoses. In the center of the piece, a pile of strollers are tied up against one another with torn hoses. As onlookers study the piece, Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Amazing Grace” plays in the background. The addition of gospel music creates a narrative. In the face of something unsettling and unfamiliar, a song of hope and divinity falls upon the listener’s ears. It changes the atmosphere of the piece entirely which is exactly what Ward wants. Since he cannot be present to talk to every guest, his choice of music speaks for him and carries his message of hope.
In an interview, Lee Jaffe, a photographer and former harmonicist for Bob Marley, asks Ward about Amazing Grace and the process behind it. Ward answers him by saying, “That piece was a reference to what was happening at the time, you know, a community in crisis.” Harlem is the second-poorest neighborhood in Manhattan with 29% of its residents living below the Federal Poverty Level. The abandoned strollers don’t just speak of the lives of the homeless people that reuse them, but also of the children who were once transported in them. It leaves one wondering where the children are now, if they are doing well, and why the strollers were neglected. Everyone who views the artwork comes away with a different story. Ward states, “I’ve been intrigued with the change of context because in every situation, people bring their cultural experience to the piece […] for me it’s not problematic to shift from these different references—in fact I learn from that.” Ward also reveals his choice in deciding to play Mahalia Jackson’s gospel cover instead of leaving the room silent. He tells Jaffe, “When I was putting together all these strollers, the piece was becoming so heavy and dark; there was this sense of despair, and I wanted to pull that back. I needed to find a sound to do that.” “Amazing Grace” is an optimistic sculpture. The reality behind the strollers weighs heavy on the observer’s hearts, but the song points to a future that can be brighter, transformative, and free.
While Ward looks towards improving the future, it is also important for him to examine the past. His exhibit swings the pendulum of time back and forth. In one moment, visitors are learning about present-day Harlem, and in the next few steps they are drawn back to the 1800s.
After leaving “Amazing Grace,” along the museum’s tall white walls are large circular copper discs with holes screwed into them. The holes form the shape of a cross inside of a diamond, which some museum-goers commented that it resembles a dead eye. Scattered along the copper are prints and light smudges that stop once they reach the holes. The piece is mildly unsettling and leads to many questions about why the cross-diamond is drilled in. These copper discs are a part of Ward’s ongoing series titled “Breathing Panels.” The cross-diamond is actually a Kongo Cosmogram, a symbol from African Kongo culture that represents their sense of identity within the cosmos. Ward first saw this symbol punctured in the floorboards of the First African Baptist church, which was a church founded by former slaves in Georgia that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The series is named “Breathing Panels” because runaway slaves hid under the floor to hide from slave hunters and were able to breathe through the holes. The Kongo Cosmogram was chosen because it served as a reminder of their African ancestors and where they came from. The Transatlantic Slave Trade sought to erase their African identity and traditional practices. This one symbol is enough to carry the message of an entire culture of people, proving how powerful visual imagery is. By using historical references, Ward is echoing back to the terror of escaping slaves (hence the scattered footprint-esque smudges) but he also highlights their hopefulness in reviving their cultural identity and living freely. The piece is made out of copper, and in many cultures, copper is used for its healing properties. The past is cruel and painful, but through their bravery and resilience, the former slaves who set up the church to help others were slowly healing their hearts.
Ward’s piece “Ground” uses the symbolic nature of copper again. “Ground” is laid out flat on the floor, staring up at those who walk by. It is a piece of over 700 masonry bricks covered in copper sheets. The markings painted into it resemble quilt patterns. According to American legends, “freedom patterns” were sown into quilts to communicate directions to African slaves about how to escape via the Underground Railroad. The patterns served as warning signs and contained information about crossroads, shelters, and nearing slave hunters. Although the validity of these patterns being used is not historically certain, if it is true, then these markings became a new kind of language to help the slaves pass safely. Ward uses these signs in his work to show how we are able to communicate without words and how speaking is not always necessary. Through this, his exhibit reflects that important messages can be expressed just as clearly by using other diverse methods instead of just words.
Towards the end of the exhibit, an ambitious sculptural set titled “Exodus” takes up a large amount of space. Several sculpted sacks are lined up against one another with items of clothing and other memorabilia sticking out. In the center there is a big sculpture of twisted fire hoses with three large circles that bear resemblance to a traffic light. The exhibit visitors have to wander around the tangled mess of sculptures, which gives the feeling of exploration and confusion. With this set, Ward reflects on the present-day and the hundreds of migrants arriving in Harlem. The sacks of belongings are supposed to be “vessels” which contain the memories and histories of migrants. The tattered state the belongings are in show the effects of poverty and displacement. With today’s global refugee crisis, the hardships of cruel discrimination and neglect are not yet a thing of the past. The piece “engages a spiritual language that connects the artist’s roots to the vernacular of the global diaspora and creates emotional resonance” (CAMH). Ward, while exploring history, also wants to bring attention to the problems in modern society. The United States is far from perfect and some prejudices carried out in our culture have not changed. Once modern Americans stop looking at refugees as less than human and realize everyone has a story, then Ward believes progress can finally be made.
What Ward’s exhibit proves is that it’s one thing to hear about history, but visually seeing it is sometimes more powerful than what words can convey. “Amazing Grace” tells the story of a modern community in crisis. “Breathing Panels” reveals the story of escaping slaves struggling to survive and crawling underneath the floor in a desperate attempt at freedom. “Ground” uses symbols as a form of communication to guide and point towards hope. “Exodus” touches on current issues of displacement and migration and the stories of those affected by it. Art is a powerful medium because of the feelings it can evoke, with or without explanation. Knowing the history behind Ward’s pieces helps and gives insightful context into the past, but the art alone makes us pause and take in something we cannot translate in our language.
Art is feeling more than speaking, and contemporary art especially is a diverse medium that allows multiple interpretations and experiences. Ann Richardson, a journalist for Art Education, writes that “whether defined as language or non-verbal expression, visual images are a viable channel of communication. Their impact is immediate and often intense. Although art may be read slowly in terms of subtle comments and implications, it is perceived as a whole, a configuration.” Art is intricately connected to language because the goal is to communicate something to others through creative expression. Bad art does not evoke any emotions and the best pieces are the most moving ones. Ward states, “I made [Amazing Grace] as a conversation with my neighborhood, about identifying a crisis that I saw within the community.” With We The People, Ward is trying to speak to others about our culture and not just make art for display or monetary gain. By focusing on the rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion in the Constitution, Ward aims to create a discussion about not only the dark past of slavery but the present diasporic experiences of many immigrants today. Richardson notes: “as a language, art extends beyond the limits of linguistic paradigms and syntactical structure. The impact, the vividness of a visual image differs from the verbal message.” It is one thing to hear about the problems within our country, but having it illustrated proves how immediate and nearby these crises are. Nevertheless, Ward’s pieces always have a hint of optimism. He does not make art just to point the finger at the human race; he truly believes that we can grow and improve as a society. By speaking through art, contemporary artists like Nari Ward can effect change within their communities and make the rest of us listen.