A remarkable Nari Ward survey at the ICA
Although much of the work featured in Sun Splashed, the largest survey of artist Nari Ward’s work to date, was completed a decade or more ago, it’s hard to imagine a more opportune time for this show. Sun Splashed, at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art through Sept 4, feels so current and of this time that it is the unmissable exhibition of the summer.
Crackling with lust for life and the skepticism of the American dream, Ward’s art is often both humorous and hearty. He explores the plight and the burden immigrants face in America today, and infuses his work with cultural references to his native Jamaica as well as the Black experience—both past and present—in the United States.
Although Ward was born in Jamaica, he immigrated to New York City in the late 1980s. With Harlem as his adopted home, it wasn’t long before Ward established himself as someone to watch on the New York art scene. It’s important to consider the New York that Ward called home, particularly the ravaged and poverty-stricken Harlem that would be his first taste of American life. But on a larger scale, New York as a whole was hurting, and the art world was nowhere near being free and clear of the AIDS epidemic that took from us an entire generation of artists.
But Ward’s Jamaican roots reverberate through every corner of Sun Splashed. He looks at stereotypes of the island as well as the specific role that Jamaica played in the Atlantic slave trade and Black diaspora. He treats urbanity and community with the same kind of reverence that he treats mysticism and religion, and as a result there is a very specific kind of provocation that ripples continuously throughout the exhibition.
Ward’s hallmark is the use of found objects and a very labor-intensive process, which not only plays with the ideas of value and worth but also gives power to the ordinary, out of order, or downright discarded. Another fascinating aspect of some of Ward’s work is the way that he includes the mark of the human body without actually having a body present in the work.
Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping is the first step into Ward’s world in Sun Splashed. A bright yellow storefront with different Jamaican soda bottles hanging from the awning, it was inspired by a candy store near Ward’s home in Harlem that was actually running a gambling operation out of its back room. It got him thinking about the differences between reality and expectation as well as the disparity between the way something looks and the truth of its inside.
Through the storefront, a real fire escape is suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by various found household objects tightly wrapped with decommissioned fire hose. The fire escape hangs over a trough of salt, an evocation of a Jamaican saying that the devil can’t walk across salt. A lone aloe plant sits on the otherwise bare fire escape, a small sign of life in this urban landscape. Giant dance hall speakers sit against the far wall playing a soundtrack of rain falling on a tin roof, one of Ward’s earliest childhood memories.
Another highlight is We the People, which takes up an entire wall and spells out the first words of the US Constitution in shoelaces of varying colors and lengths. The exhibition’s most Instagrammable work, in question here is the inclusiveness of democracy and how, despite being made up of people of all different types and colors, American democracy doesn’t come close to serving all people at all times.
Situated right in front of We the People is Glory, a barbaric-looking tanning bed made of empty oil barrels. Created one year after the US invaded Iraq, Ward’s statement here is not subtle. But he’s also exploring pigmentocracy here, the idea that the darker the skin tone, the more discrimination you’re likely to face. For some, the idea of dark, tanned skin is a sign of wealth and leisure, but others spend their lives wishing for lighter skin. There is a fascinating contradiction in some places like Ward’s native Jamaica, where tourists come for a tan but some locals are discriminated against because of the darkness of their skin. Stars and stripes cover the glass of the tanning bed so that if someone were to actually tan on it, the imprint of the American flag would be left on their body.
Oriented Right is another work that stuck with me and is, perhaps, the exhibition’s most moving. Ward was visiting the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, when he noticed that there were holes drilled into the floor. It turns out that the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the holes allowed those passing through, hidden under the floorboards, to breathe. Ward applied patina to his shoes and danced on the wood, a massive oak slab adorned with copper and a pattern of holes, and it oxidized over time. This evokes a ghostly presence of a long-suffering people, and it’s a great example of Ward including the human body in his work without the presence of an actual body.
If Sun Splashed is a title that is decidedly more optimistic and carefree than the substance that lies at the center of Ward’s work, it is fitting in that it reiterates the themes of disparity that Ward so clear-sightedly explores. At turns playful and mysterious, harrowing and somber, Sun Splashed is a transportive and sobering look at the politics of identity, the perils of patriotism, and the quest to belong.
NARI WARD: SUN SPLASHED. THROUGH 9.4 AT THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART/BOSTON, 25 HARBOR SHORE DR., BOSTON. ICABOSTON.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.