News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prize-Winning Immigrant Artist Addresses Issues Of Identity Through Sculpture


Every year, the Vilcek Prize honors immigrants to the United States who've made, quote, "lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research and the arts." The prizes may not be well known, but winners do get $100,000. This year's Vilcek Prize in fine art was announced this week. It goes to an artist born in Jamaica, Nari Ward. Rick Karr went to Ward's studio in Harlem and has this profile.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Nari Ward collects a lot of the raw materials for his art on the streets. He's used shopping carts as platforms for sculptures and mounted empty cash register drawers on paintings. He's made pieces out of shoelaces, old pianos, even a car.

NARI WARD: I always joke, you know, whenever I see the hoarder shows - you know, these reality shows. I'm just one title away from one of those. (Laughter) You know, it's like - I'm an artist. OK. I'm not a hoarder. But it's really close.

KARR: Ward moved to the United States from Jamaica when he was 12. His mother had made a home for the family in New York City a few years earlier and was bringing her kids over one at a time. His father joined them last. Ward says at first, he didn't want to leave the Caribbean. But he remembers neighbors trying to convince him that he was about to have an amazing experience.

WARD: Ice falling from the sky - you know, that sounded magical, especially in the tropics where ice is this thing that somebody in a cart would bring over. And so I was really intrigued with this kind of magical possibility of, you know, you can make a man, a snowman out of ice.

KARR: That story has inspired a number of Ward's works, including sculptures made of dried mango pits in the shape of snowmen. He says all of his work addresses the experiences of immigrants and issues relevant to communities of color.

WARD: Whether it's police brutality or power structures, community disempowerment.

DEBORAH CULLEN: Nari has created indelible images in my mind.

KARR: Vilcek Prize juror Deborah Cullen of Columbia University says Ward's work warrants attention because of how it addressed questions of identity. Cullen cites an installation of hundreds of baby strollers Ward collected on the streets of Harlem at the heights of the AIDS and crack epidemics. She says Ward demonstrates that immigrants make Harlem's culture anything but monolithic.

CULLEN: Going back to the Harlem Renaissance, the Harlem community has been very strongly populated by Caribbean immigrants from the various islands, all of which are quite different islands.

KARR: For around three decades, Nari Ward was a legal resident of the U.S. He became a naturalized citizen a few years ago, he says, so that he'd feel freer to make political art. Since the administration's order restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, he says there's one thought that he can't shake.

WARD: That could have been me. For me, that's the thing I keep reacting to.

KARR: Ward says immigrants and Americans of color have long felt the kind of anxieties that are now on dawning on many white Americans.

WARD: The way I - we've learned to deal with it is just to be able to compartmentalize. The criticism of that is really just - if you compartmentalize, then you can't be as activist as you need to be because people get upset and they get motivated.

KARR: Nari Ward says Americans who are outraged by what's going on need to find the right balance, whatever the color of their skin and whether they're immigrants or native-born citizens.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.