“We the People” at Barnes Foundation, 2016


SIX YEARS AGO, artist Nari Ward created a textile installation composed of nearly 1,000 shoe laces spelling out “We the People.” The work of art is particularly relevant today. The divisive political climate in the United States has awakened Americans anew to the values of democracy, importance of government checks and balances, and the right to have their voices heard on priority issues. The first three words to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution speak to these freedoms.

To mark President’s Day, Ward is recreating “We the People” live at the New-York Historical Society from Feb. 20-24, as a part of the museum’s The Presidency Project. Visitors are invited to “become a part of history” and donate their shoe laces through Feb. 17. (Contributors receive a new pair of shoelaces and discounted admission in exchange.) The project is designed to encourage community engagement and dialogue, and asks what do the three words mean to you and who constitutes “the people”? Ward is using the accumulated laces to complete the work.

The project is designed to encourage community engagement and dialogue, and asks what do the three words mean to you and who constitutes “the people”?

For more than 20 years, Ward has used found objects as his materials, producing works that explore race and immigration, power and politics, economics and consumer culture, and and vernacular traditions related to his Caribbean heritage.

The Jamaican-born, Harlem-based artist was recognized earlier this month for his intellectual and material investigations. The Vilcek Foundation annually awards Vilcek Prizes “to immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research and the arts and humanities.” Ward and Meleko Mokgosi were among the artists who received 2017 prizes. The top honor, including $100,000, went to Ward for his “body of found-object assemblage artwork that invites both a public discourse and an intimate dialogue with viewers on topics such as race, poverty, immigration, and the Caribbean diaspora identity.”

“Sun Splashed,” Ward’s mid-career retrospective provides an opportunity to fully appreciate his work, the broad arc of his practice the Vilcek Prize recognized. Organized by the Perez Art Museum Miami, “Sun Splashed” is the largest-ever survey of his work and includes an accompanying catalog. Ward, presents “We the People” in the exhibition, which traveled to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and opens at ICA Boston on April 26.


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of NARI WARD, “We the People,” 2011 (shoe strings), “Sun Splashed” exhibition at Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Aug. 2016. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


For Freedoms: NARI WARD, “Mass Action,” 2016 (shoelaces). | ©Nari Ward. Courtesy the Artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong


LAST YEAR, WARD UTILIZED his shoe lace technique to create another politically informed installation. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, he used a cache of colorful shoe strings to spell out “Mass Action.” The work was included in “For Freedoms,” the exhibition presented by the artist-run super PAC co-founded by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (June 7-Aug. 30, 2016).

Post-election, Ward’s work perfectly aligns with the New-York Historical Society’s efforts to increase interest in the American political process and “explore the role, powers, and responsibilities of the presidency.” Made possible by the public contribution of shoe laces—everyday materials used by people from all walks of life—the artist’s “We the People” installation is scheduled to be unveiled Feb. 24 and will become a permanent installation in the lobby of the New-York Historical Society.

Ward told The Art Newspaper: ““We all have to take part, and by taking part we build the language, and I think that very basic process within the piece is mirroring what we have to do moving forward.” CT


Published to accompany Nari Ward’s mid-career retrospective, the largest-ever survey of his work, “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed” documents the artist’s work since the 1990s, an innovative series of sculptures, videos, works on paper, and installations.


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