Trash to treasure: ICA mounts retrospective of artist Nari Ward

Screen Shot 2017-05-07 at 11.44.39 PM.png

Shoelaces and shopping carts, plastic bottles and stroller wheels, oil barrels and baseball bats – from these mundane objects, artist Nari Ward has created large-scale works to tell stories of consequence.

Before the opening of “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the artist shared his perspective.

“I’ve always tried to look at the things nobody looks at or takes for granted,” said Ward, who immigrated from Jamaica to New York at age 12. “These are things everyone has some experience with. The challenge is to make them special, give them power and to make the viewer involved in the conversation.”

In this exhibit, the largest retrospective of his work from the mid-’90s to the present, Ward offers visitors plenty to discuss: identity, immigration, citizenship, democracy, African-American experiences and Jamaican culture.

“When we signed on (to this exhibit) two years ago, we didn’t know just how timely and resonate his work would be,” said ICA chief curator Eva Respini.

Housed in three galleries, the sculptures, installation and collages of found and everyday objects are intriguing and thought-provoking, full of symbolism and occasional humor. Many are very large, nearing the height of the museum’s ceiling, and their multitude of parts are stacked, wrapped, woven and tied. One, in an alcove, is like a theater street scene, built around an actual fire escape. The 43-work exhibit, which also includes photographs and video, was organized by Pérez Art Museum Miami and coordinated by ICA associate curator Ruth Erickson.

After studying drawing and the history of art in graduate school, Ward became drawn to objects he found in empty lots and on the streets of his Harlem neighborhood, which suffered from blight and neglect in the 1990s. (Ward said he now has to retrieve objects quickly before the New York City sanitation department removes them, whereas decades ago they would lie abandoned for weeks.)

“As a young artist, I was focused on what is in my community,” he said. “These objects had stories I realized I wanted to participate in telling.”

During that time, he created his first shopping cart sculpture, “Savior,” a meditation on homelessness, disenfranchisement, poverty and neglect. He loaded it with domestic items and wrapped it in plastic bags twisted into patterns that evoke a geodesic dome. A video documents Ward as he pushed the laden, towering cart through the streets of New York City.

Several works refer to slavery, violence and freedom. In “Iron Heavens,” tightly packed burned baseball bats stuck with cotton bits are set against a wall covered with a collage of metal grilling pans, with patterns of circles, lines and holes. From a distance, it’s possible to think it pays homage to African thatched roof homes under a night sky. On closer look, it seems to comment on cotton plantations, brutality toward African-Americans and the hope of a better life in heaven.

“Oriented Right,” a surprising work of beauty in an overall gritty show, also references slavery, in this case the Underground Railroad. On a large copper sheet, Ward pierced a pattern of holes and filled them with copper nails – the pattern is based on holes drilled through the floor of a Georgian church to provide air to escaping slaves hiding underneath. The pattern radiates like the sun amid cloud-like formations of turquoise, created when Ward shuffled across the copper surface with shoes dipped in a chemical mixture.

Three works speak directly to civil rights, democracy and immigration.

“Homeland Sweet Homeland” is a quilt-like wall hanging with a feather eagle and raised badge embroidered with the words of a person asserting his or her Miranda Rights. “We the People” is a shoelace wall-hanging of these words in cursive. The shoelaces – multi-colored, sized and patterned – are symbols of the importance of one and the power of many in a democracy.

“Table” is an imposing plexiglass table and chair with drawings Ward made on his naturalization application. At select times, visitors will be able to assume the role of an immigrant by posing for a photo and filling out a contract for citizenship.

“Land” is a tree-shaped structure composed of hundreds of tricycle and stroller wheels, a metaphor for immigration and the desire to put down roots.

Ward explored his ties to his homeland in several works. In “Mango Tourist,” three ceiling high structures made of yellow foam strips resemble the stacked snowballs of snowmen. Decorated with mango seeds and small electronic parts, these light-hearted figures seem to celebrate connections between the Caribbean and the Northeast.

In the room-size installation “Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping,” visitors enter through a tropical store awning to the sounds of reggae music and walk past a fire escape bearing an aloe vera plant and bordered by cases of fire hoses wrapped around fans and other domestic appliances. At the end of the room, there’s the sound of rain on a tin roof and dance hall size speakers. It’s a place of memories and loss, home and hope.

Jody Feinberg is a staff writer for The Patriot Ledger, a sister newspaper of the T&G.

“Nari Ward: Sun Splashed”

WHEN: Through Sept. 4

WHERE: Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston

INFO: 617-478-3103; www.icaboston.org 

One thought on “Trash to treasure: ICA mounts retrospective of artist Nari Ward

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s