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How Artist Nari Ward’s “We the People” Outlines the Immigrant Struggle

Recently, I had the chance to visit Boston, one of the most racially diverse cities in this country. Boston is a microcosm of different cultures and identities, and its museums are doing a fantastic job of representing that. One such institution, the Institute of Contemporary Art, features the interesting, inclusive work of Nari Ward, a New York-based Jamaican artist who recently had his items displayed at the museum. Nari Ward’s collection, in the most basic terms, is absolutely astonishing and does a fantastic job describing the monumental struggles and hardships that migrants and minorities alike experience in this country.

At the beginning of the exhibit, Ward features a large, expansive mural of shoelaces, dyed, dried and placed specifically to form the words “We the People.” The shoelaces themselves, different from the ones below, above and to the sides of them, are commissioned to represent the immense diversity of the American population, and each of its individuals. Despite their differences, the shoelaces spell together, in absolute unison, the title of the exhibition. As a result, one can infer that these shoelaces, different as they may be, come together to form one big masterpiece; a metaphor of America itself.

Moving on through the exhibit, the most striking piece that I, specifically, encountered was a large, misshaped desk made out of plastics. This desk, titled Naturalization Drawing Table, was commissioned to represent one of the most trying steps of an immigrant’s citizenship journey: the citizenship test. In a day and age where the test is extremely hard, especially for non-English speakers, Ward exemplifies the fact that our country does everything it can to keep out immigrants, instead of foster freedom and opportunity by allowing immigrants to enter and build a life for themselves. As the son of an immigrant, and a relative to many more, I can understand the immense meaning behind this desk, for it is the desk that many have failed at in their search for a better life, deprived of their chance and opportunity to become successful.

Towards the end of the exhibit is a strikingly interesting piece: a large, moving projection of a man sweating from his forehead. Abstract as it is, this specific piece leaves an impression on the viewer, but more importantly, it raises a reality that thousands of immigrants had to face before living in this country. To be able to afford a mode of transportation to America, immigrants have to work extremely hard, especially if they come from a country where wages aren’t high, but airplane tickets are higher. This piece shows the hard work of a dark-skinned man, sweating profusely, as he attempts to create a better life for himself. One could infer that he, the man, was toiling laboriously in a field, but one also shouldn’t be too quick to assume. He could be working hard in an office building, with a broken A/C, for all we know, just trying to gain passage to America for him and his family.

When one completes their visit to Nari Ward’s We the People, they can’t help but think “how can I relate to this?” For some people, who are directly tied to the immigrant struggle, they find striking similarities. For others, who aren’t so familiar with the struggle, they begin to question their experience, both with the exhibit and with immigrants they have met in the past. Either way, Ward conveys a strong message in his exhibit, and he warns the reader not to assume anything about immigrants, their lives and their struggles. At the same time, he effortlessly uses everyday items to describe and illustrate the arduous reality that many migrants have faced on their journey to America.

Born in Jamaica, Nari Ward immigrated to the United States and graduated from Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges, which are a part of the CUNY complex. His work uses everyday items to convey powerful themes.

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