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We the People: An interview with Nari Ward

6 months ago

We interviewed Nari Ward when in New York visiting the first retropective dedicated to the artist (b. 1963, St. Andrew, Jamaica) at the New Museum. “Nari Ward: We the People” features over thirty sculptures, paintings, videos, and large-scale installations from throughout Ward’s twenty-five-year career, underlining his status as one of the most important and influential sculptors working today. 

Lara Morrell: Take me back to the beginning, you were born in Jamaica..

Nari Ward: Yes and at the age of 12 the whole family moved to Brooklyn (5 boys and one girl), we had the opportunity to live in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, it was like the hood! (all before gentrification). Then we moved to the suburbs in New Jersey, where we were the only black family in town. My mum was given the opportunity to take care of a handicapped older gentleman by the family she was working for as a housekeeper, the wife had an older brother who was mentally handicapped, her parents had passed away so they didn’t want to take ‘Howie’ out of his neighbourhood and his usual rhythm, they really loved and trusted my mum and said “Iris why don’t you go and take care of Howie and you can take all the kids”. So we basically became Howie’s caretakers! It was a really interesting space to have to negotiate because firstly we were the only black family and then we were taking care of this elderly gentleman. We had to make sure no one messed around with him, we were given a good education and opportunity, so for me that was my launching pad.

LM: When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?

NW: I never wanted to be an artist as much as I was good at it, I was good at copying and drawing things, this was around the age of 13. I remember one experience of being the new kid in class and feeling alienated, not only as the black kid but also culturally, coming from a Jamaican background. I remember one lunch break, the teacher left the class and I was sitting there drawing a Santa Claus that was sitting above the blackboard, one of the kids came over and saw what I was doing and said “hey the new kids is an artist!”, so that was first time the realisation came to me, I really embraced that, that became my default identity, the other identities were a little scarier; the only black kid in school or the Jamaican part – my accent was really still really strong, so the identity of the artist, in comparison, was easier to embrace.

LM: Did you have a formal art education?

NW: At high school there was a vocational programme for what was called ‘Commercial Art’ – but the guy really knew nothing about commercial art, he was a sort of throw back to the 70s, we did repetitive exercises and were mostly dealing with copying –  but on his office door he posted these School of Visual Arts announcements, every couple of months he would get a new one – I would see these everyday, I became brainwashed and applied, I never applied to any other school because that was my limited experience, I got in but it was really expensive, so I only stayed there a year. I then ended up doing photo retouching as an apprentice – this was pre-computers so doing the dyes, tints and bleaching, the guy I was working for was doing all the Nike accounts, big colour c-prints – I remember he was convinced that computers could never be as good as this, he was convinced that the human eye and touch was necessary, boy he was so wrong!

At a certain point I met a mentor of mine Emily Mason, a painter, who really took a shine to my skills and gave me materials. She started supporting me by getting me involved in a scholarship for a residency at Vermont Studio Center, that was pivotal because I realised what it meant to be a fine artist. There I was living with artists where studio practise was their main creative endeavour, so I said to myself – I think I can do this. It really strengthened that muscle of commitment and centralised my practice, I then got my BA at Hunter. It was easier for me to  get closer to the ‘Black Art World’, to guys like Al Loving, he allowed me into his circle and he saw that I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, he said to me “you need to go to grad school and study with Willy T.”, I had started to realise what the status quo was in academia and so I wanted to go to Yale. Willy T. Was a graduate of Yale, so Al called Willy T and sent me over with a couple of drawings, he was teaching a Brooklyn college, so I should him some of my stuff and spent some time with him – he thought I had some talent and he wrote me a recommendation, then he asked “what are you doing this spring? What about Brooklyn College?”, he walked me into admissions and literally said I want this guy in the programme, I was only supposed to stay one semester but I stayed on and he became my mentor, so these folks – Al Loving, Willy T and Emily Mason really helped guide my trajectory and my decision making.

LM: So you now teach at Hunter College. How important is formal art education for an artist?

NW: I think life is more the thing. School teaches certain tools to help you negotiate the life stuff and I think the more tools you have maybe the clearer it becomes, but I have had a lot of students who have an amazing facilities but the questions they are asking are not that interesting because they haven’t lived. So it’s a combination of negotiating both the creative space and experience space. There is not one over the other but what I am trying to do when engaging with the classroom is to help them see other possibilities, so really just trying to plug in different options for them, get a better sense of the critical landscape they are negotiating for their work. I used to teach undergrad earlier on, the good thing about them is that you can see the lights going on and you really know that you are close to that space that what you tell them is lighting up. My metaphor is that its like driving – at undergrad they are starting to figure out how to drive and the excitement of figuring out how the car works, and at grad they are just trying to get onto the highway, so they much more intent on getting into traffic, they’re at a different stage and a ‘get out of my way’ mindset and I get it. 

LM: How much do your Jamaican roots feed into work and practice?

NW: I think that in any so-called third world country, meaning that there is a certain lack of resources, people are always inventing and creating opportunities out of limited space, so I feel like there is something about that as an expectation how you negotiate things – that you don’t alway get what you might want but you figure out how you might get what you need and I think that happens in those kinds of places.

Music for me is really key, the rhythm and pattern, I think about things in terms of pattern and a lot of my work is through weaving, creating a pattern dialogue by setting up a rhythm, a contradiction within that rhythm or contrast a dissonance and then trying to come back into it. I feel like there is a rhythmic dialogue which is closer to the music more than anything else. I think I just relate to the sonic aspect. even when I’m working I like to have reggae on or African Beat – most often in terms of labour and work, mind and hand – it’s something in the beat of the drums.

NW: Tell me about your relationship with Harlem…

LM: I came to Harlem in the 90s’, a lot of the work was coming from my experience there and it was a very traumatised space, Harlem of the 90s’ was under an urban crisis, a depletion of support from the government, there was white flight running through the suburbs, all resources were dwindling, there was the crack epidemic, the aids epidemic – it was really a tough place and I saw a lot of that sense of emptiness that was happening. In terms of even the landscape, buildings were being knocked down because they were in such disrepair and the way the city would deal with it, they would just knock them down, leaving empty lots – what would happen here is that people would dump things, they didn’t end up on the side walk like garbage. In Exodus (Venice Biennale 93) with the fire hoses I wanted to create a repository for them, a place where they can be safe and a potential for them to be more than just garbage and so I created these boxes that were mysterious and aspirational somehow. The fact that they were in these empty lots and surrounded by loss somehow made them more engaging for me, rather than if they were on the side walk being ready to picked up as garbage. The landscape that I collected them in was what triggered my imagination to want to do something with them. It wasn’t like I was getting there before the garbage guy got there, it was that they were in an abandoned space that was no longer a building.

LM: So I presume these days, this is no longer the case?

NW: No! Those empty lots now costs millions of dollars!

LM: So how do you go about your collecting of materials now?

NW: It’s difficult! It’s hard to push yourself into the market place as a producer when you’re generally reacting to found object and sensibility is what you’re navigating and stimuli that you can’t necessarily control.  It’s hard to say I am going to find something that is going to allow me to have a new body of work so I can have a show in two months. You have to figure out how much of that is going to be inspiration from that found sensibility and how much is going to be a planned discourse with your creative endeavour and it is always about negotiating those things, finding a way to work to resolve something in a timely manner. A lot of artists find themselves in this position to a certain degree, a painter has a classical discourse with the challenges of creativity because they have those three or four things they work with, the canvas, the brush, the paint, if you don’t have those things then you are negotiating life that’s a harder way to wrestle those things around, I don’t want to make a comparison, (he jokes) I am always beating up painters because I feel as though maybe its lazy?! to just take it for granted that you can just use the canvas and that’s the tone of your discussion or questions. Of course they do ask questions but I’m always scratching my head at the thought that this is their only material. It is always challenging and interesting to have to be inspired by a source that you are not able to control.

LM: Tell me about your community projects?

NW: It’s out of default that I am a community artist, not because I decided I want to work with the community but just so happened that I if I decide that my audience is not going to always be white cube audience, then I have to figure out how to seduce (I don’t mean this in a bad way) and make viable work to help these folks who don’t really feel they need my engagement and what can I add to their discussions because I want them to participate in a dialogue that I am trying to create. The community part is more about my intention to broaden the audience that I want to connect with. It’s not that I want to only connect to the man on the street and I don’t want to connect with the guy in the museum, I just want to figure out how to do both to do this I made sure that I used things on the street, and the immediacy of the recognisable object that is transformed.

LM: So you wouldn’t consider yourself an activist then?

NW: No not at all! I don’t want to discredit what activism is, it is a life commitment to change, the way people think about things, I also think that part of activism is the hard work of planning for that change and trying to negotiate and I am talking about ideas and questioning injustice and the way that people are normalising it but I never put myself in the space of dealing with the bureaucracy of activism. My thing is the imagination and the aspirational endeavour of the object, I am an artist that way that doesn’t mean that aspiration doesn’t cross over to a desire for an evolution of injustice, but I don’t get in their and do the dirty work that a lot of activists do. I couldn’t put on that cloak because it is an important cloak. Tania Bruguera says it really well, she calls herself an Artivist, so I am going to steal one of her lines!

I am traditional sculptor but the subject matter are my own experiences, as an artist of colour and in this moment of time having the opportunity to talk about that and the support also there is vacuum of conversation that needs to happen around these kinds of things. So often when growing up in Janson’s History of Art textbook there were two artists of colour in there and maybe two women, so the History of Art was put down to this, so I think the white male iteration of things is now being fractured and I think now these different narratives are now finally being engaged with, comparing artists of colour compared back then with Al Loving to being an artist of colour today where there is much more interest and there is a realisation that this is missing from the discourse, that is happening now, more than ever. When I became an artist there was no scope for having a show at the New Museum, there was no model for that. We were given a show at The Witney and The Met, but it was so contentious because we weren’t really in charge of the narrative. There is a great book by Susan Cahan that talks about this, ‘Mounting Frustration, The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power’ that talks about the 70s and 80s where artists of colour were really community based, they weren’t represented at the museum. When they were eventually asked to come in to the museum it was through the education programme not through their normative exhibition programme. Artists such as Al Loving, Mel Edwards, Jack Whitten were totally forgotten about,  there are artists today like Mark Bradford whose boats are rising thanks to what these other artists had laid down and contributed before.

NW: Is the Arte Povera movement something you can relate to at all?

LM: I find it really interesting, I went to Rome to study Arte Povera, I understood what they were trying to do, the oppression of this history that they negotiated by poetically using humble materials to talk about everyday existence, I am really interested in what they had to deal with, having the ghosts of Leonardo and Michelangelo to have to deal with every day when they go to the studio. They had to figure out what was meaningful to them in the present culture and I feel like I understand and relate to that – being the storyteller and the narrative that you are trying to mime and pin down is about contemporary culture and the thing about contemporary culture – because you don’t have a distance from it – it is really hard to see it different strata, so the distance is what a lot of artists are trying to figure out for the viewer. My strategy has always been: know what this thing is but it is not functioning in the way you think it should function, how is it being repositioned and your attempt to reposition is within your imagination, changing the position on a reality that the viewer think they know. I think that is really important: the power of the imagination to shift is the key to grow as a person. Imagination is undervalued, especially now with these flat screens, I feel like thats the thing that we are losing, our imaginations are becoming less dynamic, the muscle of the imagination is getting lazier.

There are two tracks within the process of the works I’ve done, there is the found objects that inspire a journey and then there are the things that might be more conceptualised and acquire to reinforce that concept. For instance TiPi Rainbow- Reign in terms of king and bow like the bodily submission and TiPi -is the tactical platform, the name for these police towers that are set up in in neighbourhoods concert. The whole premise of it, is that the higher you are the more you are in control. I tried to take that form and relate it to fairy-tale, where the tower becomes Rapunzels tower, with hair coming down, but the hair is caught in mens trousers, then there is a fox that has an afro as a tail and I call him Cornel after Cornel West and he is looking at this configuration of hair. For me collapsing the fairytale and the police tower is a way to demystify it and maybe even bring it into a space where fairytales function as parables of sorts, a narrative that functions as a way to to tell a lesson, I wanted that the tower to be about a strange fairytale of danger but also mystery. Danger and Mystery being together is very seductive to me, one warns of potential disaster and we relate it to things we see in the news, the mystery relates to a creative space, how do put creativity with the urgency of the warning? A lot of people don’t know what it is because they don’t have the experience of these things so when they look at it they see it as a new form, for me that is exciting, they are seeing something they have never seen before and if they care to do the research or see it on the street they’ll have another take on what that thing might mean.

It would be harder to be a found objects artist – because there isn’t anything to find anymore and there wouldn’t be the residence around those things because there is not the empty spaces. Things were always in isolation, those baby strollers would be pushed into lots because the guys would bring their empty bottles or cans and would bring them there to have a moment to separate them and leave them there. So I would walk into this space and see three or four baby strollers in an empty space, that would never happen now. So it is a whole other time table now. What really comes across in my students is that in this super corporate production mindset space that we are in now, the work becomes more about going to home depot rather than finding the stuff on the street, the things that they are accessing they find are very different the sense of history is not as possible, the things that are relevant and have a residue of history on them generally end on eBay and the term they use in vintage. You can find some really interesting stuff on there!

LM: So digital spaces do have their pros..

NW: There are the benefits! I was doing a project where I needed cashregister drawers tills  and just the tills and not the register and I needed a particular stye of them, so I could go on eBay and see hundreds of them which I would never had had the chance to access them before on the street, the piece Iron Heavens where I had to collect oven pans, I needed them to fill the wall and create a night sky, the over pans with the dots. I would go out and hit out all the … it took me about 4 months to get to that configuration, it becomes an obsession, my joy and days were deteremnined by how many fans I would find. Its about collecting then transforming and what meanings can be added to those things.

LM: What would you consider your top three New York landmarks or things to do in the city?

NW: The Met for sure, just walk around and get lost. You have to go to Harlem, 125th street – the Apollo Theatre – there is an Apollo sign here in the show, I reference the theatre as it’s important landmark. Then Brooklyn, just walk around there, there are some aspects of Brooklyn that are really quite magical, Fort Greene for example, I am biased for Harlem but there is definitely something about Brooklyn – The Brooklyn Academy of Music has always got some interesting goings on there or the Brooklyn Museum too. These are what I think as relevant New York moments.

Lara Morrell

  • Courtesy of the artist and New Museum Courtesy of the artist and New Museum
  • Courtesy of the artist and New Museum Courtesy of the artist and New Museum
  • Courtesy of the artist and New Museum Courtesy of the artist and New Museum