Nari Ward brings together sports with fine art

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Nari Ward is a critically acclaimed contemporary artist whose work draws heavily on his experiences and relationships with sports.

The sports world rarely intersects with the world of fine art. The jocks and art kids don’t hang out in high school and that doesn’t often change throughout life.

In the work of Nari Ward, however, the two worlds do occasionally meet.

Ward’s artwork is most instantly recognizable when he’s using shoelaces to write text or create images, a material familiar to sports fans. These pieces have helped make him one of the most successful and critically acclaimed contemporary artists working today with exhibitions in top art museums around the U.S and Europe.

Inspired to create by the street culture he observes daily around his home in Harlem, the pervasiveness of basketball in the parks inevitably made its way into his work. He has incorporated basketball cards and cut-up basketballs in his art.

Ward has been commissioned to create works for both Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and the Detroit Pistons’ locker room. He uses charred baseball bats in creating monumental sculptures recalling altar pieces.

Nari Ward artwork featuring charred baseball bats on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Born in 1963, Ward played soccer growing up in Jamaica. It was only when his family moved to Brooklyn at age 12 and then two years later to Parsippany, N.J.  the artist began recognizing how connected basketball was to Blackness, and vice versa, in America.

“It was a weird thing because I moved into a predominantly white neighborhood, so this entirely changed context for me,” Ward told FanSided. “I felt like these signifiers of Blackness like rap music, reggae, basketball — the urban, cultural parts of Blackness — became the social dialogue with my brothers. That became our way to connect to Black culture.”

Being Black, it was assumed by his classmates he was interested in these subjects. His son experienced something similar decades later and half a world away.

“He grew up in Harlem, but he didn’t play much basketball — he also played more soccer — and then we went to live in Rome, and I’ve never seen (him) embrace basketball, rap music, all of this more in Rome than he did when he was in Harlem!” Ward remembers. “That became the identity that everybody thrust on him and he embraced it.”

Ward moves beyond the basketball court while remaining connected to Harlem’s streets in his latest series, I’ll Take You There; A Proclamation. The artist has created sculptures and installations composed from discarded material found and collected in his neighborhood including repurposed objects such as baby strollers, shopping carts, keys, cash registers, and, of course, shoelaces. I’ll Take You There; A Proclamation engages with ideas of commemoration, community and the reclamation of public space.

Nari Ward, Live Ball, 2010. Shoelaces. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

Provoked by the sidewalk memorials which sprang up during the Covid-19 pandemic in the absence of places where people traditionally mourn, Ward incorporates the candles, teddy bears and liquor bottles often found at these sites into his artwork.

“At the height of the pandemic I remember going out on my morning walks — and everything is shut down — and I’d see all these primarily alcohol bottles… basically, people decided to hang out regardless; the bars were closed and there was a lot of trauma because people were dying,” Ward said. “You couldn’t go to funeral homes, they were closed down. People needed to mourn collectively so they would hang out on the street and outside on the sidewalk would be upwards of 50 to 60, 70 bottles in the morning because people are hanging out in the evening. I felt like there was something in the story that needed to be told. Something about that action and that engagement, the need to collectively mourn, celebrate, just be together.”

Ward’s presentation will be on view through June 4, 2022, at Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York City. The gallery is open Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.– 6 p.m., with free admission and the public welcome.

Nari Ward, Class is in Session, detail, 2012. Krink marker, basketball trading cards and collaged basketball mounted on aluminum. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin.

Basketball fans in New York, unfortunately, will have plenty of spare time to visit and ponder Ward’s art. While May should see them caught up in the heat of the NBA Playoffs, the Knicks remain mired in a 20-year funk while the Nets were swept in the first round.

“I’m always disappointed by the Knicks. The owner of the Knicks becomes my main source of chagrin,” Ward said, echoing the sentiments of Knicks fans everywhere. “I feel like there’s no incentive for him to have a winner because people are going to sell out (Madison Square Garden); people are such ardent basketball supporters in New York, he doesn’t really have to make much of an effort.”

Like millions of New Yorkers, Ward was a fan of the 1990s Knicks teams, even more so because star center Patrick Ewing was a fellow Jamaican.

As for the Nets, “I really was rooting for (them) because I felt like they were trying to get a winning team — finally — making the right moves, trying to get some class A players, but then they just felt apart.”

Sports fans skeptical of dipping a toe into the art world should remember this, unlike sports, there are no losing seasons. No soul-crushing, last-second defeats. No ruined nights or weekends — or longer — due to a bad performance. No blowouts at the hands of rivals or dealing with their obnoxious fans.

Plus, you’ll already start your journey into art with a favorite artist to follow: Nari Ward.

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