Hold These Truths

November 13, 2017 - March 14, 2018

NLE Lab: Southeast Queens Biennial

February 9 - April 21, 2018

Nari Ward


Sugar Hill Smiles, 2014
Tin cans, labels, mirrored stainless steel disks, smiles, video. Cans 3.25 x 1.5 inches. 

Mimicking the form of mass-manufactured preservative cans, this installation references Piero Manzoni's "Artist Shit" project, which called into question the notion of faith in the artist's vision that bestowed value on anything an artist produces. Yet Ward’s project is more than an art insider’s joke. The smile in question here refers to the "canned" cliché of the happy African American minstrel character whose expression is meant to reassure the dominant class/audience that all is well with the status quo, be at ease.  The minstrel’s “smile” can also be said to continue in the service industry where too often chattel slavery has been replaced by wage slavery, long brutal working hours and conditions for little pay—a fact hidden in the mechanisms of consumer cultures which function on smooth running and apparent pleasure in service.

First explored in Canned Smiles (2013) where his daughter and son smiled into the "Black Smiles" cans while Ward (born in Jamaica) smiled into the "Jamaican Smiles" cans, this seemingly absurd gesture underscored the cultural process of classification of people according to their origin. Sugar Hill Smiles, however, engages with the action of ‘canning the smile’ from a different vantage point. With a former US president declaring his allegiance to Harlem and a slew of trendy restaurants opening to new occupants, real estate brokers are careful about the fragile nature of its investments and are quick to brand proximity without declaring their allegiances. Sugar Hill Smiles addresses how the Harlem brand is being marketed for the profit of so many that have very little direct investment in the neighborhood. Ward’s project adopts the Sugar Hill brand as Harlem’s own smile manufacturing center. The community members will be invited to smile into 2,000-mirrored interior cans, which will be labeled and sealed. Each smile will then be sold for $10.00USD to support a local educational institution.  

Photo credit: Amelia Golden