New York is a city of trash and art: hot garbage smells waft down streets packed with world-class museums and galleries. It’s a city of extremes and diverse experiences. The New Museum embraces these clashes in its newest exhibit, “Nari Ward: We the People,” on view from Feb. 13 to May 26.
Nari Ward’s artwork stretches across the second, third and fourth floors of New Museum. A Jamaica-born and Harlem-based artist whose work has been seen everywhere from Ludlow House to East Village rooftops, Ward’s art centers around themes of migration, race, trauma, gentrification and displacement. Ward works primarily with found materials–items that he scavenged from the streets of New York–like plastic bottles, fire hoses, strollers and shoelaces. But with apparent trash, he creates art.
Much of Ward’s work engages with the social issues of the times. When he began his practice in the 1990s, the AIDS pandemic and crack cocaine crisis were devastating New York. On display currently at the New Museum are several pieces from this time in Ward’s career, most notably, Amazing Grace (1993).
You can hear the gospel notes of Amazing Grace playing from down the hall on the New Museum’s second floor, but it’s only when you enter a large exhibit room that you take in the hundreds of baby strollers arranged in a circle, like the interior of a ship.
Ward intended for the strollers to connect viewers to ideas of poverty and repurposing, noting that homeless people adapted the strollers to carry their belongings. But, the work also invokes a powerful sense of loss that feels deeply connected to race and identity–of lives lost on the ships that transported enslaved Africans to the Americas. Like many of Ward’s other works, Amazing Grace connects to broader themes of identity clear in the title of the exhibition: “We the People.”
Ward’s more recent work takes up issues connected to immigration and policing. From a distance, the titular We the People (2011) appears to be a sculptural work of threads spelling out “We the People” in immaculate Founding Fathers script. Up close, it’s a collection of carefully placed shoelaces. Ward clearly wonders which people were, or should have been, included in that encompassing “we.”
Nearby, museum staff and a notary public assist visitors in completing mock immigration paperwork at Ward’s Naturalization Drawing Table (2004). Ward’s ongoing performance project asks museum visitors who may never have questioned their citizenship, nationality or identity to complete naturalization paperwork, including submitting passport photographs and signing forms in the presence of a notary.
More than 30 of Ward’s sculptures, paintings, videos and installations fill the rest of the space. They consist of found materials like fire hoses, shopping carts, sugar and soda, razorwire and garbage bags, as well as more traditional materials like ink and graphite, and span from 1992 to 2018.
It so happens that the New Museum hosted Ward’s first institutional solo exhibition, back in 1993 when he had just completed his earliest piece in this current exhibition, Carpet Angel (1992). The exhibit on display this month is the first New York museum survey of Ward’s decades-long art career. it not only showcases Ward’s style and growth as an artist, but also the changes that New York City has experienced since the 1990s.Though Ward’s work takes up the bulk of the exhibition space at the New Museum, it’s not the only exhibit on display this Winter/Spring 2019 season. The floor above Ward’s art houses “Jeffrey Gibson: The Anthropophagic Effect,” which also opens tomorrow.
Gibson will be completing a residency with the Department of Education and Public Engagement while his exhibition is on display at the New Museum. His work focuses on Indigenous craft practices, such as porcupine quillwork, beading and basket weaving. His art engages with ideas of cultural appropriation, colonialism, and identity — not unlike Ward.
Also on display at the New Museum are Adelita Husni-Bey’s “Chiron,” which reckons with migration and trauma; Mariana Castillo-Deball’s “Finding Oneself Outside,” which explores Mexican culture and colonialism; Rhizome’s “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics,” which considers digital archival practices and artistry; and Genesis Belanger’s “Holding Pattern,” which manipulates objects into human forms.