Nari Ward

Nari Ward speaks about his retrospective at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami

Left: Nari Ward, Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping, 1996. Photo: Pérez Art Museum Miami. Right: Nari Ward, Sun Splashed, Listri Sulla soglia, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, and Havana.

Nari Ward is a Jamaican-born artist who lives and works in New York City. Here he discusses the extensive survey of twenty years of his practice, “Sun Splashed,” which opened this month at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and is on view through February 21, 2016.

SOUND IS LIKE A SPIRIT. It is in everything. When you write a rhythm you are acknowledging the sound that is already here and simply amplifying it. My work is visual; however, I also make sonic space, and even when there is no sound component the surrounding air has an aural quality. Happy Smilers, 1996, was an early artwork that that was first shown at Deitch Projects, and I am thrilled to see it up in Miami, because it hasn’t been shown since then. For that piece, I was inspired by a numbers runner who lived in my old apartment building and ran a candy shop downstairs where no one bought candy—I was drawn to how he set up a false expectation. Similarly, I created a fake storefront in order to disrupt the expectation produced by the white cube. In those days working with Jeffrey Deitch in New York, you had the space to make installations that commented on the social texture of the city. I learned something then that I still value today: that art isn’t about making products for a gallery.

In the piece, a bright yellow atrium opens onto a room containing home goods and furnishings, which are wrapped in fire hose. Happy Smilers was also the name of my uncle’s band; he sang mento—early Jamaican folk songs. We play his music in the installation, accompanied by the sound of heavy rain on a zinc roof. The fire hose material buffers the noise of the rain and simultaneously emulates the tone of sparks from flickering flames. This is one of those unintentional but powerful moments that happen in installation, the elements of chance.

Nari Ward discusses his retrospective at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

The Pérez show is divided into two bodies of work, but for me there is little demarcation between art derived from a Caribbean sensibility and work that the curators consider to be more American. Bringing a social issue into the work depends on where I am when I am producing. Vertical Hold, 1996, showcases the meticulous labor of collecting as intensity imbued with irreverence. I made it during a residency with the Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. I wanted to find cultural material from the original communities. One of the Shakers, Brother Arnold, showed me an old dump site where I found nothing, but I kept looking. Eventually I saw unbroken bottles sticking out of the ground, and I picked them up. I tied these bottles together and made a kind of quilt. It is suspended in a circular configuration in the show. When you move around the work, the light striking the bottles along with the intense tying and knotting of the yarn begins to emanate a certain power.

Seeing these early works up next to my latest series makes sense here. Miami is a gateway to the Caribbean, but it also has pathways leading back to New York. A few years ago, a naive collector said my work did not seem Jamaican because it was not happy. Everywhere I looked, I saw this myth of the happy Jamaican. The collector’s words haunted me, triggered me to collect smiles. Piero Manzoni questioned ideas of value with his shit cans, so, alluding to his irreverence, I made a series of cans with mirrors in them, Canned Smiles, 2013; I captured people’s smiles and closed the cans. They were labeled “Black Smiles” and “Jamaican Smiles.” This was the rich absurdity that led me back to the early Happy Smilers piece, and thus to the “Sun Splashed” photos that give this show its title.

For that series I went to different homes, stood next to their houseplants, and plastered a big smile on my face. I co-opted my uncle’s happy persona from his Happy Smilers album cover, but my photographs never worked; I looked like a fool. It was only when I stopped smiling and looked at the camera that my focus held. Then the confounding nature of the image, about not belonging, being an introvert, a victim, or even perhaps a worker that is walking away with a plant, all came to the fore. Like my installations, these photographs are activations of memory through a found cultural artifact, showcasing my impertinence in the face of found assumptions.