With many parts of the United States hovering in different stages of reopening, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver has fortuitously been able to welcome visitors back in person with a very timely unveiling of a major retrospective of the artist Nari Ward. Entitled ‘Nari Ward: We the People’, and over a year in the making before the pandemic hit and postponed the opening for yet another three months, the exhibition brings together some of Ward’s most iconic sculptures, paintings, video and installation works from the last 25 years, exemplifying his ongoing commentary on being Black in America.

In a deft, complementary move, Ward and MCA Denver have partnered with Orange Barrel Media, IKE Smart City and the Denver Theatre District on a companion public art project for the duration of the exhibition. Curated by Diana Nawi, images of Ward’s recognisable wall drawings, which he creates by drilling shoelaces into architectural walls, now appear on digital billboards and on the screens of Orange Barrel Media’s IKE Smart City pedestrian kiosks, located around downtown Denver.

Billboard installation work, We Shall Overcome, by Nari Ward
We Shall Overcome, part of Nari Ward’s new public art project across downtown Denver. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana, and Roma. Photography: Orange Barrel Media.

Projected for several hours on most evenings in both black and white and colour, the arresting digital works convey the urgency and political energy that is sweeping the country. From images of protest signs and the Black Power fist to textual extracts that include song lyrics like ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ and the last words of abolitionist John Brown, who declared ‘This is a Beautiful Country’ before his execution, the public project not only facilitates interaction and engagement with art in a time of social distancing, but also enables art to be accessed more equally across the board.

‘I’m interested in the random nature of the way that viewers will encounter these images; I like that they will happen upon them,’ shares Ward, about the significance of the digital partnership. ‘I also like that the work is repositioned into a digital space where the capacity for a larger collective experience is extraordinary.’

‘I’m interested in the random nature of the way that viewers will encounter these images; I like that they will happen upon them’

As powerful as the billboards are, the project is anchored by a new site-specific work being projected onto the Daniels and Fisher Clocktower. Lazarus Beacon, a digital adaptation of an eponymous wall-based work in the MCA Denver retrospective, is based on the 1883 sonnet ‘The New Colossus’, written by the poet and activist Emma Lazarus, that is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Ward’s iteration graphically extracts the subjects of the poem – the poor and downtrodden whom the country has promised to offer safe harbour – by selecting keywords that eerily float up the multi-storey tower for all to see.

Billboard installation work, Blowin’ In The Wind, by Nari Ward, as part of the artist’s public art project across Denver
Nari Ward, Blowin’ In The Wind. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, Habana, and Roma. Photography: Orange Barrel Media.

‘This piece was inspired by the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from the current White House administration; it seems out of touch and contrary to what the US represents. I want the Clocktower light to amplify and make present the idea of welcoming others,’ Ward emphasises. ‘It is a reminder that America’s greatness comes from her promise of liberty and justice for all, no matter their circumstances.’ §


‘Nari Ward: We the People’. Courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Orange Barrel Media