By Edmund Barry Gaither

Callaloo, Vol. 12 No. 4, p. 633-635


A dozen years ago, Barbara Ward's work was sometimes referred to as "dolls" or "doll-like." Such descriptions seem dramatically out of place now. Over the last decade, her work has achieved a fundamental clarity of intent which has established its sculptural integrity. Properties which distinguish rich artistic vision from facile entertainment prevail in her sculpture, giving her "people" extraordinary vitality and presence. By wedding her eye for daring combinations of colors and materials to her gift for capturing the expressive character of her subjects, Ward has birthed what she aptly calls a "new race." [1]

What are the elements of Ward's evolution as a sculptor? Among them are her artistic intention, interpretation, formal vocabulary, and presentation context. Each of these dimensions of her growth is fertile and merits further analysis and discussion.

Though often difficult, a primary question for the creative person is "to what end shall I direct my energy?," for direction must be found, and objectives identified. Thus artists, as creators, must determine the intent of their work. From time to time, Ward and I have talked informally about intent in her work as it bears upon the perception and place of her contribution in the art world. This issue was especially important because of the manner and materials in which she chose to work. Fabric is a medium associated with the largely obsolete category of "minor arts" or crafts. Crafts are further associated with artisans or craftspersons rather than artists. Deep prejudices still cloud the overlapping edges of traditional crafts and fine arts. Ward, through a still-evolving creative process, chose to establish the sculptural integrity of her work by moving it away from reliance on conventional/traditional presentational devices, away from superficial character development, and towards a more audacious mastery of formal, aesthetic problems. Her intention was not that the sculptures should be entertaining and pretty, but rather that they should force a delightful but lasting dialogue between themselves and the viewers. They were to become the focus of authentic encounters with significant visual forms.

How were these works to acquire significance? Their significance derived from Ward's perceptive grasp of human character and her ability to express that character through gestures, poses, attitudes, and garments. So astute an observor of human spirit is she that with the mere turn of a head or the addition of a political button, her figures attain highly individual personalities. Like characters in a Brueghel painting or a Spike Lee movie, they are instantly identified. Yet through a complex of associations-particularly psychological and familial ones-her sculptures have a deeper self. They suggest values and qualities that are abidingly important. For example, her Harriet Tubman [2] is a relatively thin, elegantly elongated woman, yet this Tubman conjures a person of immense strength, conviction and compassion. The dimensions of quiet power so admired in mothers and grandmothers are present in her attitude. She is the "Moses." The perception of her strength derives neither from heroic scale nor from the exaggeration of her face or form; instead, it grows out of an intuitive understanding of what her soul must have been. Similarly, the female character of I Had a Dream [3] has the quality of a prim and proper housemother, a late Victorian woman with an appreciation for decorum and respectability. The type and angel of her hat, the quiet, harmonizing colors and quality of her clothes all confirm her as a woman of our grandmothers' generation. Yet a more careful look reveals a lovely handpainted broach at her collar, and it tells us that she had another more spirited and contemporary side to her personality. She is still interested in life and is not above intrigues.

The spirit that infuses Ward's works is rooted in her own joie de vivre. In fact, her sculptures are often extensions of her own personality and of her understanding of the personalities of other women she knew well. Sometimes they even dress like her. Often she will integrate into her work articles of apparel or jewelry from family and friends. Obviously, such articles have strong associative values since they were actually used by people and have thereby been endowed with personal significance.

In the case of historical commissions such as the previously-cited Harriet Tubman, Ward conducts careful and thorough historical research into the appearance and dress of the subject, after which she subordinates these data to an impression of the essential character traits of the person. In this way, she strives to follow the example of great portrait painters of the past who sought to capture the spirit more than the likeness of a sitter.

What are the aesthetic sources tapped by Ward? How does she use the formal elements which are the language of art? Masking traditions are one of two influential aesthetic sources for the shaping of Ward's personal style. Faces such as those which appear on the New Race Series II are clearly related to African masks such as those of Zaire's Kuba people. A New Race face, for example, might display highly abstract eye, nose, and mouth treatments which give definition to facial planes bounded by beadwork, a wig, and calabash earrings. The colors observed on the mask-like faces are freed from any requirements associated with naturalism. Moreover, the colors themselves are very bold. Ward freely reinterprets features and selects colors that heighten the visual and emotional power of her sculptures. In spite of the degree of abstraction used, these faces of her sculptures retain a dramatic, psychological intensity. In this respect, her works are an extension of worldwide masking traditions. [4]

The second fascination which commands Ward's attention is her interest in peasant fabricworks traditions from places as disparate as Afghanistan and Guatemala. Head coverings, decorative medallions, shoes, belts and epaulets, hats, and jewelry from non-Western societies offer an almost boundless range of ideas for creating figures which suggest masqueraders. Fetish, for example, yokes these traditions together so completely that there is no longer a distinction between the body of the figure and the decorative details that adorn it. Both fabric and masking traditions have been so internalized by Ward that she intuitively observes their inner logic. She has completely mastered the language of the mask and of the masquerade.

Ward, in her use of materials, shows a preference for the juxtaposition of many strong colors and varied textures in one work. Over constructed skeletal elements, she uses reverse applique techniques, beads and jewelry, and numerous otehr trappings to complete the bodies of her figures. In selecting fabrics, she mixes reflective metallic materials with absorbent black cottons. In such cases, the abstract elements of the sculpture are accented by the sharp contrast between bright, advancing or "hot" colors and black backgrounds. Sharing a preference for the lavish colors of illustrator Jerry Pinkney, [5] Ward frequently overlaps aggressive yellows, reds, and magentas with bright blues, greens, and purples. So startling yet effective are some of the combinations that she must be regarded as an exceedingly fresh colorist.

Recent sculptures by Ward are generally life-sized. This change of scale enhances the impact of the figures while also dispelling any lingering hint of the old "doll" issue. Such figures are often clustered together to form ensembles which are, in the language of contemporary art, installations. When so presented, the works take on the aspect of a hybrid community of like creatures. They become a new race basking in public view and exhibiting a clear consciousness of their own ascent in the post-Colonial world. They are Third World neighbors.

Soft sculpture is a relatively new direction in contemporary art. Over the last two decades, it has been an arena in which black women sculptors have dominated. In particular, Faith Ringgold has contributed importantly by drawing attention to this idiom with early works such as Wilt Chamberlain (1976) and ensemble works such as the Bena and Buba from Wake and Resurrection for the Bicentennial Negro (1976). Ringgold, in her soft sculptures, was concerned with the implications of particular political/social themes. [6] Working in a related style is Marie Calloway-Johnson, who makes stuffed sculptural reliefs such as Loved, Feared and Followed: Mary McLeod Bethune (1978), in which she used actual clothing. Ward has given a more lavish and textured treatment to her figures than has either Calloway-Johnson or Ringgold. It is, in fact, her tendency toward complete visualization of unity of personality and apparel which gives her works its salience, its imaginative vigor. Starting with the images of Third World characters, she gives her sculpture extraordinary particularity. In fact, she makes universal comments about humanity through their extreme particularity [7] Third World peoples become the vehicle through which she addresses the human condition. Using her awareness of contemporary socio-political as well as cultural issues, Barbara Ward has not only freed her inner creativity from conventional art or aesthetically safe pursuits, she has also contributed hugely toward expanding the boundaries of what art is in the late twentieth century.


[1] This designation is taken from the "New Race Series II," a group of four life-size sculptures completed in 1988.Back

[2] This work was commissioned by the Harriet Tubman House in Boston. It was installed in 1989.Back

[3] The work is part of an ensemble exploring the theme of the multiple personality options that reside in each of us. Back

[4] Ward does not limit her sources to African masking traditions. Back

[5] Pinkney, whose illustrations are widely praised, is a black artist noted for his use of brilliant colors, especially bright blues. I suggest that their choice of color combinations are similar, but not that they directly inspired each other. Back

[6] Ringgold is specifically concerned in her work with issues of feminism and sexism.Back

[7] Each sculpture is highly individual in its attitude and decorative features. There is no generic type amongst them. This personalization of images gives each work definitive personality traits which in turn provide a way for viewers to access and understand the character before them. Empathy with the characters allows viewers to see in-or through-them other more general human passions, ideals, and foibles.

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