Nari Ward ’89, acclaimed sculptor and Hunter professor of studio art, has been awarded the 2017 Vilcek Prize. The $100,000 prize honors immigrants who have made lasting contributions to American society through their work in the arts and sciences. Ward, who was 12 when his family came to the U.S. from Jamaica, is in excellent company: Previous Vilcek honorees include Yo Yo Ma and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Ward’s latest and largest installation, G.O.A.T., again, opened last April at Socrates Sculpture Park on the Long Island City waterfront—the first time the five-acre Queens green space was turned over to one artist. The installation’s six new sculptures address Ward’s abiding themes of immigration, race and belonging.
Ward caught the attention of the New York art world in 1993 with Amazing Grace, a haunting installation in a former firehouse in Harlem. To construct the work, he painstakingly scavenged 365 abandoned baby strollers. Then he arranged them into the shape of a ship’s hull and dimmed the lights while Mahalia Jackson’s soaring recording of the gospel standard played in a loop. The sadness and loss of the empty baby carriages stood in poignant counterpoint to Jackson’s vocal paean to faith. Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times, called the piece “both euphoric and elegiac, celebratory and grim.”
Ward’s works, all composed of found objects, have been exhibited at the Barnes in Philadelphia, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Sun Splashed, a much praised survey of his work, originated at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and is on a nationwide tour that recently included Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Ward has been the recipient of many distinguished honors, including a Joyce Award, a Rome Prize, and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
“Teaching at Hunter College,” he says, “has been very special because of the amazing instructors and my foundational experience as a student here. My Hunter teachers inspired and challenged me in ways that I could never have anticipated. Now, as an immigrant and artist of color, I see teaching as a privilege—and a form of social activism. The opportunity to have such an impactful role in the life of a student is extraordinary.”