Nari Ward


Permanent Collection

Nari Ward was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963; he lives in New York. Ward arrived in Salvador on April 3, 1999, on the same flight as Leonardo Drew, in the first group of artists. He stayed for a few weeks, left, and then returned on July 10, overlapping with Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Domenico de Clario, Doris Salcedo, and Kara Walker. Ward worked with a group of intermediate-level children and teenagers from Projeto Axé's Usina de Dança (Dance Workshop).

Ward stated in his initial project proposal that he wanted to work with three elements that evoked related aspects of Salvador's cultural history and its intersections with the children's daily lives: sugarcane, cafezinho pushcarts (carts built in the shape of small trucks from which coffee is sold on the street), and ceramic piggy banks. His challenge was to discover with the children how these elements fit together and how to give them meaningful form.

Ward collaborated with dancers because he had worked with choreographers in the past and because he was intrigued with the stage as both a place and a symbol—a place in which the children could extract themselves from and reflect on their everyday lives. He asked the children to talk about their everyday tasks, and each child gave him a movement associated with a specific task, including washing, cleaning, sweeping, cutting sugarcane, dusting, washing car windows, and so on. By isolating these movements, he hoped to help the children look at them from another perspective and then to see what the results would be: could art change how the children thought about or lived their lives?

Ward and the children also discussed the meanings of the three elements. Sugarcane was the crop on which the plantation system was based: it represented the type of labor, slavery, that was historically imposed on the children's ancestors. Ward was surprised to learn how present this history was for many of them, some of whom had relatives who still cut cane. "That was an important revelation for me," he has remarked, "because, as an African American, that history felt so distant to me, but for them it is so real. I had a lot of problems as a black person looking at the situations that these black children find themselves in because it all felt so overwhelming and because there were so few inroads for them to gain access to power within the society." The piggy banks signified hopefulness: "The idea of being able to extract yourself from the here and now and plan for the future," Ward has stated. Finally, the cafezinho pushcarts signified the resourcefulness and inventiveness that Salvadorans have developed to lift themselves above social, political, and economic limitations.

Ward then asked the children to imagine an object that they could use to perform their respective tasks if the ones they ordinarily used were not available. He took their suggestions, figured out how to give them form, made drawings of them, and then fabricated them using materials he found at Feira de São Joaquim, Salvador's main market. For example, he made a silk broom, a feathered shovel, a duster with electrical cords, and a machete of broken glass and aluminum. He then gave the objects to the children and let them play with them. He and Augusto Omolu, an educator at Axé, asked the children to repeat their movements several times rapidly and slowly, extending the limits of their bodies and seeing what happened. Indeed, for Ward, play was the common denominator that linked all of the artists' projects: "Play is how the children access that other place of invention, of acting out, or going outside of yourself and becoming something else. As artists, we go there naturally."

Ward and Omolu also took the children to the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, where the exhibition would be held. He asked each child to bring ten plastic bags from home (because they were inexpensive and easily available), and he provided them with yellow ones from Feira de São Joaquim. In the galleries where he would later build his installation, the children improvised with the bags while doing their movements. They tore the bags, made sounds with them, and transformed them into costumes, and Ward videotaped the entire process. As Ward has stated, "The children's bodies began to occupy the space in a very sculptural way."

For the exhibition, Ward created an installation integrating the three elements that had initially inspired the project with documentation of the children's activities. The installation consisted of a circular stage slightly raised from the floor; its surface was bisected, with the two segments elevated slightly toward the center, so that one could see beneath the stage shards of broken ceramic pigs, symbols of broken dreams. The stage's surface was covered with black and white shoe foam arranged in geometric patterns evoking the pavements of certain streets in Salvador. Its perimeter was bordered with sugarcane stalks, and four cafezinho pushcarts designed by the artist and fabricated according to his specifications were placed around it. They were mirrored, evoking the idea of a mirrored dance studio (even though the studio the children used had no mirrors) and the experience of the dancers reflecting on their movements. Finally, on top of the stage he placed the objects the children used, and adjacent to it presented documentation of the children playing with the objects and with the bags in the museum.