The empty strollers stand sequestered together so that they surround you on almost all sides. They are dirty and dilapidated, their sense of abandonment enhanced by a veil of shadows weighing down on their worn veneers. Some are tied together with a flattened fire hose, jumbled together as if for some desperate bonfire. The soulful voice of Mahalia Jackson emanates “Amazing Grace” from somewhere deep in their midst. It feels like the site of a tragic and ceremonious infant rapture.
That was hardly Nari Ward’s inspiration when he created the installation “Amazing Grace” inside his converted firehouse-studio in 1993. But it speaks to the themes of loss and redemption that are inherent to his work. Comprised of approximately 280 strollers collected from the streets of Harlem, “Amazing Grace” is the earliest of Ward’s most regarded works, which are on display at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum until November 30.
Organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibition, “Nari Ward: We the People” surveys Ward’s prodigious career and displays his longstanding exploration of identity, displacement and belonging in the United States, an exploration that has become increasingly resonant in the last three years.
Since the early 1990s, Ward has collected and accumulated everyday items from the streets — baseball bats, pans, clocks, bottles — to create large and oftentimes interactive sculptures. The humble and distinctive nature of these materials lends a raw power to his work. By weaving the physical fabric of America into his sculptures, Ward’s work comments profoundly on the social fabric of American society and governance.
The exhibition’s namesake piece, “We the People” (2011), equivocates between tragedy and hope by confronting what it means to be considered American. Thousands of multicolored shoelaces strung from a wall spell out the first three words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution in Old English script. The glaring contrast of the traditional lettering and the psychedelic colors conveys Ward’s modern rereading of one of the most hypocritical phrases of America’s founding. While for most of American history “we the people” has referred to white nationals of European descendent, today’s public reckonings with the prevalence of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, evident in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too, are slowly pushing on that exclusive interpretation.
Ward, who immigrated to New York from Jamaica at a young age, wrestles with identity politics in nearly all his work. At “Naturalization Drawing Table” (2014), the agonizing bureaucracy of the U.S.’s procedure for gaining American citizenship is embodied by the sculpture of a fossilized desk constructed of transparent plastic panels. A series of “participatory bureaucratic environment” events on certain Saturdays invite visitors to complete a modified version of an Immigration and Naturalization Service citizenship application and have their photograph taken. Completed applications hang on the wall above the desk, bringing American participants into the ambiguous experience of statelessness and thus acknowledge the hereditary privilege of national acceptance.
Like in the exhibition’s namesake piece, Ward has not been content to exclusively address modern manifestations of migration, displacement and exclusion. Rather, he exhumes the roots of the such phenomena in the very American institution that bred them: slavery. His use of Kongo cosmograms — African prayer symbols that were cut into the floorboards of churches that sheltered escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad — speaks to a condemnation of the American institutions that exclude individuals not only from a political identity but also from humane treatment, which continues to be seen in forms of police brutality and extrajudicial detentions of immigrants on the border.
But the cosmogram symbol also represents to the resilience and perseverance of those who have been subjected to such treatment. On the Underground Railroad, cosmograms were not merely symbolic: they were composed of tiny holes in floorboards that allowed the former slaves to breath while hidden underground. The functionality of this symbol demonstrates how symbolism alone is not enough to fight institutional injustice. Words and symbols must permit and provoke action. They cannot only represent the idea of hope but must offer the possibility for hope.
On many occasions Ward has stated that “Amazing Grace,” is meant to evoke a womb. The huddle of decrepit strollers does not represent an end, then, but a beginning. It’s the lens through which Ward seems to have created all his art: the end of suffering gives birth to the beginning of new hope and new life.