When it comes to Nari Ward, it can take a long time to hear so many voices. They are everywhere in his retrospective at the New Museum, fleshing out the sonic landscape amid (and from) the multiple installations. A tanning bed, for instance, made from oil drums, calls out not the work’s title, Glory, but an insistent “Hey, come on over here.” Sons recite their Miranda rights, in a muffled audio, to their very own father, in full dress as a retired policeman. Mahalia Jackson sings “Amazing Grace” over empty baby carriages in the outline of a slave ship. Just three words from the Constitution supply the show’s title, “We the People,” with every one of those people aching to be heard. In each case, the voices call attention to the silence that they can never quite break. And Ward has one listening to that as well.
Ward has made sculpture and assemblage from the voices of Harlem for more than twenty-five years. He has displayed a replica of the sign outside the Apollo Theater. He has welcomed Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery uptown with the burnt-out sign from a liquor store. He has scavenged the streets time and time again, as for those baby carriages. He first exhibited them in an abandoned Harlem firehouse, and fire hoses carpet the paths between them. He has since taken that space as his studio.
He piles more broken and battered items into shopping carts, including a chandelier and a family album. They could stand for ordinary shoppers and residents, to signal the area’s vitality, or for the homeless—and Ward fully intends to represent both. A man pushes a cart down the street on video, where a split screen allows for both his point of view and the jaded observer’s. Again and again, works take more than one perspective on the same action. Again and again, too, they ask whether anyone is listening. The sons address an absent audience at Al Sharpton’s House of Justice, also in Harlem, and a hand fondles their father’s uniform before the camera draws back and the officer turns away.
Ward may speak to the neighborhood more than anyone in art since James Van Der Zeeand the Harlem Renaissance. He began as an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and never left town. At the Venice Biennale in 1993, he set out lumpy bundles of unstated contents, as “vessels” for others to fill. To judge by an abraded shield on the back wall, others may have already filled them before dying. He grew up in Jamaica, though, and he created his own branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, for the Institute of Contemporary Artin Boston in 2004. He did not become an American citizen until some eight years later, just short of age fifty.
He searches Harlem obsessively for signs of life, as if searching for his roots. Yet he takes a longer perspective as well. The ship’s hull alludes to slavery, but also to African traditions left behind. Bottles hang from the ceiling, as if from that burnt-out liquor store, but in the shape of a rack to ward off evil spirits. Holes in Ward’s work closest to abstraction mime a Congolese symbol. They also serve as “breathing holes,” where breathing cannot be easy.
He follows African American history to Savannah, Georgia, where freed slaves founded a Baptist church. It appears on video behind a piano that could well have accompanied Sunday services. For all that, Ward’s Caribbean homeland enters just once. Cans labeled Black Smiles and Jamaican Smiles allude to the stereotype of a happy Jamaican and to shoe polish for a happy performer in blackface. Do not, though, take that for the last word, in an artist constantly revisiting his own work along with history. Even now, with so much behind him, he is still finding his voice.
He keeps finding other voices, too. Even with three floors, the New Museum cannot contain them all. Large installations restrict their number to under fifty. They cannot include the liquor sign or much that has appeared at the Studio Museum, the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and in Chelsea. And the works thrive on time and space. They grow into their new homes with ease.
At the heart of everything is a dual question: who speaks for us, as immigrants or as Americans, and who are we? It appears in that pretend INS office, where even you must apply for admission. It appears explicitly in the preamble to the Constitution, which could also serve as preamble to the show. Ward wove those first three words from shoelaces, the kind that supply sneakers to kids who may never have read them. Are we the people a unity, a diversity, or a fiction, and who might it forcibly exclude?
Ward is not just chiding white America. The laces drip down while outlining the fancy, familiar typeface in the color of the streets. Is the union unraveling or just now coming together and teeming with life? What about the liquor store whose flashing letters spell out SOUL? What, for that matter, about the Apollo Theater, whose central letters spell out POLL? Do they serve as a reminder that hope resides in Harlem’s cultural history and the voting booth—or that a poll tax long barred African Americans from having a voice?
I missed the last possibility when I first saw the sign in Queens—much as I missed the frequent allusions to America’s promise in stars, stripes, and eagles, as if the tanning bed were searing them into African American flesh. I also saw a troubling parallel to art’s “bad boys,” like Matthew Barney. And Ward did exhibit along with Barney, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Gabriel Orozcoin Venice. This is not, though, just trash artand macho boasting. Textile patterns in several works alone would preclude that. Besides, he also exhibited in Venice with Janine Antoni, and he collaborated with her on a Hunger Cradle for the firehouse.
Nor is the work simply angry on the one hand or affirmative on the other. Hunger has both positive and negative associations, between a hunger for achievement and desperation for the next meal. Carpet Angel, created for the New Museum back in 1992, floats above a loose pile of carpeting, plastic bags, plastic bottles, and heavy screws. Its shape could confirm equally to an angel’s wings or a worldly robe. It is about transcendence, but not an escape from the tangle and disruption of this world. The black pride of Kehinde Wiley and the Obama state portrait sseems far away.
The curators, Gary Carrion-Murayari and Massimiliano Gioni with Edlis Neeson and Helga Christoffersen, compare the angel to stained fabric by Sam Gilliam. They also compare the wall reliefs to tilings by Jack Whittenand the dark, fragile spaces of Lee Bontecou. Ward’s black chandeliers have a counterpart in Jeanne Silverthorneas well. Like them all, he retains Modernism’s vocabulary while sprawling and shouting in all directions. Not everything works, because that can get out of hand. He is, though, patiently asking to be heard.
Old work may also take on new lives—and not just as Ward recycles materials and adapts them to new spaces. The INS office has new relevance between Donald J. Trump’s demands for a border wall and the demands of others to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The baby carriages evoke a whole new wave of gentrification in Harlem, as does a grandfather clock with an African statue in its base. It is hard now to hear “Amazing Grace” without thinking of a moving speech by Barak Obama. Not that Ward is so prescient, but rather that past problems keep returning. We the people are still asking why.
John Haber is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Haber is also a writer, textbook editor, and in 1994 he founded HaberArts.com as an online resource in art and art education. It now covers the work of thousands of artists from the Renaissance to the present.