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The exhibition Nari Ward: Sun Splashed at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) is the first mid-career retrospective of the Jamaica-born artist, and it includes over two decades of his work. It overlapped with Firelei Báez: Bloodlines, a smaller solo exhibition of primarily paintings and drawings by the Dominican Republic-born Báez, a former student of Ward’s. Both artists live and work in New York City—Ward in Harlem and Báez in Brooklyn.
Curator Diana Nawi installed Ward’s diverse oeuvre across three galleries. The works in the first gallery all dealt loosely with issues of inclusion, immigration, American citizenship, and race. For instance, the wall installation We the People (2011) seems fairly direct upon an initial glance. The first few words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution are constructed out of a number of shoelaces. Indeed, the performative act of the intensive labor involved in the work’s execution is perhaps a commentary on the similarly meticulous care needed to maintain the project of democracy. As Naomi Beckwith writes in her catalogue essay, Ward’s wall works often behave more as sculptures. They require visitors to engage with and to walk around them in space. In this case, the materials themselves evoke walking and moving. As one gets closer the words become a mass of colorful laces, and the work shifts from the privileging of the optical and language to the haptic and experiential.
In her introductory catalogue essay, Nawi writes about the need to re-read Ward’s work, the discourse around which has become “calcified” (her term) largely around authorial intent as well as themes such as labor (18). Nawi deftly keeps the artworks from being swallowed whole by the politics of authorship by organizing the second gallery around pieces that veer toward abstraction and an emphasis on form. For instance, several of Ward’s more recent copper-plate works that are part of his Breathing Panel series (2015) are on display. Ward has punched a series of circular holes into them from which thin, etched lines radiate outward and reflect light; each plate also has areas of darkened patina. These works employ abstraction as style, but the patterns formed by the holes mirror those that Ward found cut into the floor of the First African Baptist Church, part of the Underground Railroad in Savannah, Georgia. There they served a functional purpose as breathing holes for those passing under the church to safety. Indeed, the dark areas of the copper are the artist’s shoe prints.
The final gallery includes works primarily dealing with the Caribbean as a loose signifier in which the artist himself appears, although not always fully visible. For instance, Ward depicts himself in front of a grocery store for his diptych of color photographs, The Scandal Bag: History Feeds Mistrust (2015), but he obscures his face with a rainbow-colored plastic bag. The opaque polyurethane bags that grocery stores in Jamaica use are often referred to as “scandal bags” because they shield their contents from prying eyes. In her catalogue essay, art historian Erica Moiah James draws on Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant’s theory of creolization to explore Ward’s works. Though she does not mention his concept of opacity, it seems worth mentioning here. Glissant’s concept is that it is possible to be connected to each other in an increasingly globalized world without the obligatory transparency that has shaped much of colonialism—the need to know and thereby subjugate the “other.” Indeed, Ward’s veiled subjectivity is in sharp contrast to the various tropical, colorful fruits depicted, which could be construed as stereotypical signifiers of the Caribbean world, on the storefront windows.
Báez’s exhibition Bloodlines is modest in comparison. It includes about a dozen works, all installed in one of PAMM’s bigger galleries. At the same time, the handful of large-scale watercolors, paintings, drawings, collages, and installations on display pack a punch and are not overshadowed by Ward. In fact, Bloodlines is a perfect complement to his exhibition: it extends the conversation of Glissant’s opacity—if not explicitly—to women’s bodies, conceptualized by Báez as sites of agency rather than only of oppression. Each wall has two to three works except for the one farthest from the entrance on which is hung a sprawling installation. Given Báez’s work is often oversized and meticulously rendered, paring down the works shown was a prudent decision by curator María Elena Ortiz, whose essay in the exhibition’s catalogue gives a nuanced overview of Báez’s art to date. The exhibition includes mostly new work, commissioned for the exhibition by Ortiz.
Bàez’s powerful gouache, ink, and graphite on paper Can I Pass? Introducing the Brown Paper Bag to the Fan Test for the Month of June (2011) sets the tone for the exhibition. It is the first and only work on the wall with the introductory exhibition panel. A series of twelve non-traditional self-portraits on paper (all silhouettes in various shades of brown that are based on the artist’s own skin color), the work is not completely abstract. The outlines suggest changing hairstyles, from kinky and curly to wavy and straight; the artist’s eyes, which peer out defiantly at the viewer, are rendered realistically. The balance here between representation and abstraction is one between self-exposure and privacy. The work broadly speaks to the recurrent use of skin tone to signify race, and thereby class, across time and space. In the context of the United States the brown paper-bag test invoked in the title was employed in the South: if a person’s skin was darker than the color of the bag, then they were considered black. It is important to note this crude test was also used in exclusive parties hosted by the African American community in which only those who were as light or lighter than the paper bag would be admitted. Báez’s title also references a hair test in the Dominican Republic: if a woman’s hair did not flow freely in the air, then she was considered black.
On an adjacent wall are works in which Báez employs a similar formal approach to portraiture more generally. For instance, the facial features of the figure rendered in the acrylic-and-ink-on-linen Sans-Souci (This threshold between a dematerialized and a historicized body) (2015) are once again obscured with the exception of the eyes. One difference is that the face is awash in a medley of colors, such as purple, green, and yellow, which bleed into each other and pop out against the darker brown color of the linen. The identity of the figure is left productively ambiguous except for the presence of an elaborate knotted headdress known as a tignon. Women of color in colonial Spanish-era Louisiana in the eighteenth century were forced to wear them to identify themselves as black. Interestingly, many women began to get creative with the tignon and made them into beautiful wigs. In a further twist, the tignon later became favored by upper-class white women in Europe. Moreover, within the convoluted patterns of the top of the headdress Báez has drawn azabache (fist) symbols. Charms made in the shape of the first were thought to ward off the evil eye in Cuba, and the fist was utilized as part of the Black Panther Movement in the 1960s. This evocation of multiple sites and times is consistent with Báez’s other work on display.
While Ward’s Sun Splashed will travel to two other venues, Bloodlines will travel to just one other venue. However, the slim catalogue accompanying Bàez’s exhibition has full-color plates of all the work in the exhibition. The catalogue is important not only for the latter but also Ortiz’s aforementioned essay and an artist interview with curator Naima J. Keith. Each of Keith’s questions is followed by what reads like a fairly scripted response by the artist; this approach differs from the more conversational interview between Ward and Philippe Vergne in the catalogue accompanying the Ward exhibition. The latter makes for better reading, but the former provides the kind of detail that is rarely available for artists in an early stage of their career and therefore welcome. The catalogue for Ward’s exhibition is a helpful contribution to the rearticulation of his work beyond simplistic notions of genealogy. In addition to the essays by Nawi, Beckwith, and James, along with the interview with Vergne, there is a wonderful contribution by playwright Ralph Lemmon, who discusses his collaboration with Ward on various works. This is an aspect of Ward’s output that is unexplored in the exhibition, so it is particularly valuable in elucidating how his practice has been adopted for the stage.
While the decision to have Ward’s and Báez’s exhibitions overlap is not accidental—it was a carefully constructed curatorial conceit—viewers are not signaled by any wall text to make connections between the two, but instead are left to make them on their own.
Alpesh Kantilal Patel
Assistant Professor, Contemporary Art and Theory, Florida International University; Field Editor, Contemporary Art, caa.reviews
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