Nari Ward first visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2002 while he was working on a piece for SiteLines, a project at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. At the Gardner, Ward was struck by the staff's commitment to the Museum and their diligent care, especially the work of the Conservation Department. On returning to his studio in Harlem, Ward began work on new pieces for an exhibition including Mimesis: Glove Book that he constructed using catalogues of the Museum's collection and the transformation of a small school bus that he installed outside on the Museum’s grounds.
Ward returned for five weeks to continue his research and to prepare for his exhibition, Episodes: Bus Park and Forevermore. Early on in his residency, Ward met with a group of ninth-grade students at Boston Arts Academy and presented his concept for the Bus Park installation, explaining how they would help create the exterior structure of the bus with “vines” of hundreds of yellow pencils fastened together.
He turned the Museum’s special exhibition gallery into his temporary studio and, with the help of two assistants from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, constructed five new works that responded directly to the collection and to Isabella’s requirement that the Museum galleries be preserved exactly as she had arranged them. Once, a work made out of clocks, and photographs of the museum staff as children, was partially "etched" into the wall to reveal the multitude of paint layers from previous shows. Another work, ISG Duster, was a replica of the conservator’s vacuum and cleaning cart, covered in dust from the galleries that had been specifically saved for the project.
Ward had also been attracted to the children's books in Gardner's collection. He selected the first line of each story and invited the students from Boston Arts Academy to take photographs of the collection that reminded them of each passage. These were collected and incorporated into books that were tethered to the seats of the bus. A second group of students from Boston Arts Academy helped Ward install the pencil vines, and helped create a recorded sound component, which was edited together with music and piped into the bus.
Filmmaker Mark Lipman captured the process of Ward creating Bus Park in his Harlem studio and at the Museum. During the time of the exhibition, programs included talks by the artist and by independent curator Tumelo Mosaka, Olukemi Ilesanmi, then assistant curator at the Walker Art Center, Adam Weinberg, then Director of the Addison Gallery of Art, and Pieranna Cavalchini, curator of contemporary art at the Museum. Ward returned in 2007 to give a Noontime Talk about his then-current projects.
In 2015 Ward was the fifth artist-in-residence invited to create a temporary site-specific work for the façade of the museum. Divination X showed x-ray images of cowrie shells. Considered precious objects, cowrie shells were used in West African sacred practices, and their use continues in Afro-American traditions. When thrown and interpreted by holy men or women, cowrie shell patterns are believed to divine the future.
Nari Ward's (b. 1963 Jamaica) installations challenge viewers’ social and spiritual beliefs, evoking an emotional response. His sculptures are composed of material collected from his urban neighborhood and often incorporating sound and light. Weaving culture, history, and personal narrative, Ward transforms items like garbage bags, baby strollers, bottles, landscaping barrier cloth, fire hoses, oil drums, doors, and old televisions into works that explore issues of race, poverty, consumer culture, sex, and immigration.
Nari Ward has had solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, the Institute of Visual Arts in Milwaukee, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Galleria Civica d’Arte moderna e contemporanea in Turin, the Palazzo delle Papesse-Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena, MASS MoCA in North Adams, the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, the Louisiana University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. His work has been shown in biennials including the Nanjing Biennial in China, the Prospect 1 New Orleans Biennial, the Whitney Biennial in New York, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in Japan, the Sharjah International Biennial 7 in the United Arab Emirates, and Documenta XI in Kassel. He has been in group shows at the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Palazzo Reale, in Milan, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, the Taipei Musem in Taiwan, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
He has received commissions from the United Nations and the World Health Organization, and Awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Joyce Foundation in Chicago, the American Academy of Rome, and the Pollock Krasner Foundation. Ward is currently a professor of art and sculpture at Hunter College. He lives and works in Harlem.