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Feathers on a Burnt-Out Hearse: Black Grief and Nari Ward’s ‘Peace Keeper’

By BETH HARPAZ

A rusted, burnt-out hearse decorated with feathers is part of a new exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan. The work, called “Peace Keeper,” was created by Hunter College Professor Nari Ward. 

The exhibition, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” can be seen in person through June 6. The museum is also offering virtual tours.  

The museum describes the show as “addressing the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.”

The idea for an exhibition of work by Black artists about the intersection of Black grief and white nationalism originated with curator Okwui Enwezor. The museum says he’d hoped to mount the show around the time of the U.S. presidential election “as a clear indictment of Donald Trump’s racist politics.” But Enwezor died of cancer in 2019. The museum continued with plans for the show as a tribute to his legacy, though the opening was delayed by the pandemic. 

detail shot of the art work "Peace Keeper" by Nari WardWard first created “Peace Keeper” in 1995 for the Whitney Biennial, but it was later destroyed. He recreated it for this show. “The first version was stored at my brother’s service station for several years and when he sold the business I decided I would not keep the work any longer,” he said in an email. “It was recreated at the request of the curator for the exhibition in honor of Okwui Enwezor, who considered the work important for the concept of this show.” 

Asked to explain the work’s meaning, Ward offered a quote from an essay by Christina Sharpe in the exhibition catalogue. She describes the hearse as “a signifier of mourning and death” that’s also “about movement. But the hearse here is inert—it has bars around it that block its ability to move. The hearse is burnt out, covered in tar. Parts are suspended, dripping from the ceiling. Its multiplied innards—exhaust pipes with their silencing mufflers—seem to have exploded out of it. They sit gathered around the hearse like so many bodies, like so many bones. We enter into a state of incomplete, unfinished mourning. Mourning itself is under siege.”

Writing in The New York Times, critic Holland Carter said: “It’s only when you stand close that you see delicacy: The car’s surface is flecked with iridescent peacock feathers. … The humiliation of tar-and-feathering is evoked here too, but so is a message of flight.”​