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Nari Ward: Transient and Timeless Political Art at the New Museum

-KL Dunn


If you happen to venture into the New Museum without any pre-conceived notions of Nari Ward and his work, “We The People” is astonishingly on-trend. It addresses complex political and social realities, spanning the 25 years of evolution of a New York City. From the rampant creativity and energy forged in the AIDS and Crack epidemics to the gentrifying commercialization of “Now”, one is immediately enveloped by the anguish and glory of a dislocated, displaced world.

And, without any knowledge of what the artist is up to, one could be excused for thinking that this work testifies to “too much stuff”. But look further. Yes, it’s true that all of the pieces are built from found material – plastic bottles, fire hoses, abandoned strollers, tanning beds, baseball bats – but, as Ward says, environmental concerns aren’t the “starting point”.

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.”

Nari Ward

A Jamaican immigrant and classically trained artist, Ward is grounded in the materiality of Harlem, his long time home. He invests his pieces with both poetry and humor and his layering of found objects create spaces for epic storytelling.
Below are a few highlights:

We The People

 Inspired by the common sight of shoes tied together and hung over power lines in city neighborhoods Ward uses thousands of multicolored shoes laces inserted into and dangling from the wall to spell out “We The People”, the opening words of the American Constitution, in large antiquated lettering. This piece takes on this moment – who are We the People? Nothing but individuals and groups with specific identities and histories – wondering when, if ever, the promises of the Constitution will become a living reality.

 Amazing Grace

 You can hear the strands of Mahalia Jackson singing Amazing Grace even before entering the space. Turning the corner you are confronted with 365 abandoned baby strollers configured into a womb like shape. What could be depressing somehow isn’t. Originally a plaintive installation reflecting the immensity of the AIDS crises, it has lost none of its poetry. The strollers are caretakers, the firehoses, (reminders of hoses turned upon the Civil Rights marchers decades past), become a pathway to remembering a shared sorrow.


Perhaps where Ward shows his humor best is in this oil barrel turned tanning bed – where the image of the American Flag can literally be burned into you. The accompanying soundtrack is parrots learning to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic – a defiantly anti-slavery song.

The overall exhibit joyfully if somewhat poignantly contemplates the nature of the past upon the present. It offers a space for all of our stories to interweave.

At the New Museum until May 26th

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