On February 19th, Blue Muse sent two staff writers, Cynthia Vu Le and Ariella Mendoza Ozuna to the New Museum located in the heart of New York City. They visited Nari Ward’s latest exhibit, We the People. The Jamaican-born artist has been described by the New York Times as “a sculptor who reminds us that our world is filled with potentially magical objects.” Below are their individual accounts of the artistic experience.
“A Day at the New Museum” by Cynthia Vu Le
Born in St. Andrews, Jamaica, in 1963, Harlem-based artist Nari Ward has a creative process that is both unconventional and innovative: unconventional in that he uses found materials, and innovative because he addresses issues of race and poverty through his work. His latest exhibition, “We the People”, on display at the New Museum, which features over thirty of Ward’s works spanning his extensive twenty-five-year long career. Ward is most known for his sculptural installations composed of discarded materials.
The pieces in the exhibit include paintings, videos, and large-scale installations. Ward has witnessed his neighborhood transform. Harlem, a suburb that was neglected and taken over by drugs and crime during the ’70s is now home to a gentrified neighborhood filled with coffee shops and organic grocery stores. Harlem, where he has come to collect an abundant amount of found objects—baby strollers, plastic bottles, and shoestrings to create massive sculptures. These are his materials—raw, forgotten, abandoned, items the public considers trash, which he repurposes and gives new meaning through his art.
At the entrance of the New Museum, the front desk assistant greets visitors and directs them toward an elevator leading to four floors of Ward’s work. The elevator assistant smiles and suggests starting from the top. The large elevator doors open to the fourth floor, and the smell that permeates the air is similar to a run-down Goodwill.
Ward’s Spellbound (2015), is a piano with nails hammered into it, keys dangling off those nails. Under a single blue light, the piano looks lonely, lost, and forgotten. Keys that once opened doors to homes, cars, lockers, lives—who knows what was opened or locked away.
The faint sound of a hammer to nail pulls viewers forward. Attached to the backside of the piano sits a television. We see Ward on the screen; he’s focused, hammering each nail in the piano, each nail holding a purpose just like the keys once did.
In a 2015 Forbes interview with Courtney Willis Blair, Ward mentions, “These keys weren’t regular keys. They were keys that I wanted to have symbolically reference places that we no longer have access to but were still somehow indexed through these elements.” I can’t help but notice that the one key hanging from the far-left side looks familiar to the one that unlocked the bright yellow door to my childhood home.
Large portions of Ward’s work are statements within themselves. They showcase the issues of ’90s Harlem—poverty, discrimination, consumer and material culture—issues that persist today. His exhibitions are displays of experiences and exchanges with other residents of 125th Street who have otherwise been exploited or neglected by those in power.
On the next floor, Hunger Cradle (1993) greets guests with its spider-web-like appearance of red yarn. All sorts of objects are suspended in between the yarn and rope. The piece spins itself through the halls, suspended over visitors. Broken furniture, books, and a crib are spun throughout. Ward found all the objects throughout the streets of New York City. This trash spun throughout is made important, rigorously employed for new purpose while retaining its recognizable form.
On the same floor, Ward’s Amazing Grace (1993) is displayed, notably his most famous work. Ward created this using over 250 baby strollers that were commonly used by the homeless to transport their belongings. He arranged the flattened-out fire hoses to resemble the hull of a ghost ship, creating an uneven ground for visitors to walk across. The piece is a memorial to early ’90s New York, specifically the devastation that swept the city caused by drugs and the AIDS epidemic. The voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson accompanies viewers over the loudspeaker; she performs “Amazing Grace”. The lyrics, “I once was lost, but now am found/ T’was blind but now I see,” speaks about redemption and change, generating optimism and hope. “Amazing Grace” also reaches back to the history of colonialism and slavery.
Not only does Ward utilize his materials to create these sculptures to speak upon discrimination and poverty, but also his experiences of growing up in Harlem. The clear voice in Ward’s work opens doors for future artists to follow in his footsteps. The exhibition “Nari Ward: We the People” will be on display at the New Museum until May 26, 2019
“Art: In the Eye of the Beholder” by Ariella Mendoza Ozuna
American artist, Craig Damrauer, is famously known for saying, “Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.”
On a cold windy day in February, I traveled out to Lower Manhattan with a backpack and an open mind. New to world of modern artists, I went in expecting to experience the conventional type of art that most people are expose to on school field trips as children: The Birth of Venus, Pterodactyls, and Egyptian mummies. I saw none of the above, quite frankly, I saw nothing I’d seen as elementary schooler with Ms. Vasquez in P.S. 109. The New Museum is itself a piece of modern art. The building is composed of geometric white rectangles and leveled sections slanted on top of one another. Upon entering, I was instructed to the elevator that would lead to the different levels of the exhibit. Once exiting the elevator, I entered Nari Ward’s world.
American painter, Grace Hartigan once said, “I cannot expect even my own art to provide all the answers, only to hope it keeps asking the right questions.” Nari Ward’s work does just that. His installations are created from discarded items, what most would call garbage found in the city–fire hoses, baby carriages, keys, glass and plastic bottles, shopping carts, tires, baby cribs–that he transforms into art.
On the top floor of the exhibit, the wall reflected crimson red from a life-sized Apollo sign, almost identical to the original sign of Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, made of fluorescent red-light bulbs mounted to a rectangle wooden panel. The Apollo served as a versatile venue for African-American artists. A place that hosted the pinnacles of Black excellence as the likes of: Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, D’Angelo, Billie Holiday, Luther Vandross, and even the Jackson 5. The lights on the memorial flicker off the first “A” and last “O” frequently, imitating an old broken sign. Lacking vibrancy in the flickering lights translates to the Apollo itself-how the figure of Harlem Renaissance took a decline after 1960 and temporary downgraded to a movie theatre in 1975. The lights flicker but they don’t go out for long, just like the Apollo which after the 1990’s reopened as a performing theatre; regaining its prestige and continuing to represent African-American culture.
On the third floor directly below, a collection of used shoelaces stapled to a white wall, read the US Constitution’s opening phrase, “We the People” (2011). The iconic installation titled “Worlds Otherwise Hidden” measured about five feet per letter. From a distance, the text resembled melted words into a beautiful range of colors. The rainbow of shoelaces that make up this installation, cleverly mirrors the diverse people that make up the melting pot of New York City—a place where people from all origins live in proximity. Back away further, the piece represents a contrast between the America of our founding fathers and the America of today. The Constitution was designed protect the rights of wealthy white landowners, all men, and today those rights are extended to American citizens of all colors and origins. As an Afro-Latin American, I see myself as multicolored shoelace, woven into the dream of the American promise, but aware that true equality is a luxury for some and nothing less than dream to many.
The underlying mission of Ward’s pieces became more evident as I journeyed on to face the largest and most intricate of the installations, a web of belongings. The “Hunger Cradle” (1996), composed of yarn, rope, and found materials had strong resemblance to an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare: tangled threads hanging from the ceiling continuing through a hallway. Hanging from the web like insects in a spiderweb were objects of different lives, baby cribs, outdated metal heaters, tires, chairs, fragments of a piano, and other dump finds. This installation mimics human beings in a sense, and how we are all a part of webs of interaction and crossing paths. The piece also emphasizes how once important items can easily become obsolete. In the competitive and rapid free market in America, innovation is expected, and objects are replaced with new editions; more luxurious and expensive than the last.
In the future, I hope the work of modern artists like Nari Ward to be on the itineraries of school museum field trips. It’s time we recognize modern art for its freedom of interpretation and the messages it provides. While da Vinci’s and Van Gogh give us a good taste of art history, modern art says a lot about the now. The type of art that disrupts our routine thoughts and gives us new perspectives to grapple with, or in the very least makes you question something you never have before, within that lies the art.
Below is an interview with artist Nari Ward by ICA Boston.
Headline photo was taken by Ariella Mendoza Ozuna for Blue Muse Magazine.
Ariella Mendoza Ozuna and Cynthia Vu Le are staff writers for Blue Muse Magazine.