Bottle Torches

A fantasia on Nari Ward

Ishion Hutchinson

Detail from Nari Ward, Savior, 1996. Shopping cart, plastic garbage bags, cloth, bottles, metal fence, earth, wheel, mirror, chair, and clocks. 128 x 36 x 23 inches (325.1 x 91.4 x 58.4 cm). Installation view, Nari Ward: Re-Presence, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by EG Schempf

Untold (2013)
at the first sign of dusk, kerosene oil is poured into the soda bot­tles, right up to the rim of their slim necks. The bottles are then stuffed tightly with newspaper, with the long “tail” of each paper, twisted and curled at the tip like the small intestine of the stomach, floating halfway to the bottom of each. The short “head” of the paper, the wick, is pinched into a triangular shape and then flat­tened. Later, just before lighting, the wick will be re-pinched into the triangular shape. Once all the bottles are filled, they are leaned upside down in rows against one side of the house or around a big rock or on the trunk of the ackee tree or in between the ackee tree’s raised roots, where they resemble strange bulbous growths. As the kerosene secretly soaks into the newspaper, the men wait for darkness.

It is during this time of waiting, the dusk darkening fast, that these blue, green, orange, and red Coca-Cola and 7-Up and Pepsi and Fanta bottles begin to glisten dimly like the flux of a burnished river. The men, deep in conversation, making bad jokes and teas­ing each other, don’t see this phenomenon. But one among them happens to catch a glimpse of these faint colors moving in the dark and is suddenly filled with a nameless sadness. For somehow, the looker sees enslaved ancestors in the glimmer. Centuries ago, these ancestors lived and died on this same plot of land, which—except for the house, the big rock, and the ackee tree—remains the same, full of sugarcane fields and swamps. They dreamed of escape. They set ablaze the sugarcane fields, then fled to the swamps.

Yet they would later return to the land, the land synonymous with sugarcane. For most, there was no escaping the sugarcane. It reasserted itself many times over in the unending cycle of con­flagration and return. In between recurrences of this dream—the dream that was the perpetual fight for freedom, the setting ablaze of plantations, the fleeing to the swamps—the living and dying continued to live and die where the sugarcane grew.

Somehow—the word has a shiver of terror in it—as dusk becomes night, the looker sees in the bottle torches the unfinished dream of freedom. The rivulet of colors pauses momentarily, dis­appears in the blink of an eye. Then, with a near-divine rage, the looker grabs a bottle from the big rock.

The action is like a signal. The waiting is over. The bottles are taken up and shaken vigorously. The wicks on top are squeezed again into triangular shapes. A lit match is put to one, then another, and another, and another. After brief sputters, wavery flames dance steadily on the torches. There’s laughter.



Swiftly the flames begin to cut into the dark to the swamp.

Nari Ward, Hunger Cradle, 1993. Yarn, rope, and found materials. Dimensions variable. Installation view, Nari Ward: We the People, New Museum, New York, New York, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

hunger cradle (1996)
i wonder if Nari Ward, the installation artist known for his fan­tastical sculptural assemblages of found objects, who was born in 1963 in Jamaica, knows the scene I’ve described above. Being that he was a city kid, a Kingstonian, before emigrating to Harlem at age twelve, it might not be so familiar to him. But the scene was a touchstone of every rainy season in the Jamaican countryside and a recurring part of my own childhood in St. Thomas, the eastern­most parish on the coastline of Jamaica. The ritual of the bottle torch, which still happens, is a peculiar kind of fugitiveness. It makes me think of the layers of fugitiveness in Ward’s work, its engagement with various forms of Black selfhood.

Indeed, Ward’s work takes a “fugitive approach,” in the words of his beloved friend, the great Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. Enwezor was referring here to the “abstract” or elusive conceptual frame of Ward’s work rather than the historical premise of the Black quest for freedom that is also central to the work; the sculptures take a fugitive approach because they address the great burden of history sidelong, honoring its essential paradoxes. Both physically and figuratively, Ward’s work conjures and grounds itself in the Black quest for freedom.

In its original meaning, the word fugitive refers to someone who commits a crime and hides from justice. The paradox, in the context of African enslavement in the United States, is that a fugi­tive is someone whose crime is escaping and hiding from injustice: a paradox premised on the fact that enslaved peoples of African descent were not full, legal human beings. The notorious Three-Fifths Clause of the U.S. Constitution enshrined this into law in 1787, paving the way for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to return escaped Blacks to enslavement. In effect, the enslaved were taken back to the injustice they tried to escape. This practice continued until the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act fourteen years later, in 1864.

The fugitive approach of Ward’s work indirectly complicates and does justice to this heritage. Ward’s painstaking process of salvaging objects that have escaped our human containment and reimagining them in ways that disturb our affective capacity reflects an ethos of private and civic rebellion.

Hunger Cradle is one such disturbing installation. I saw it in the spring of 2019 at the New Museum in New York, suspended from the ceiling like a seemingly endless galaxy: a vast, roughly undulat­ing net above the viewer’s head. You enter it through a cavernous, womblike doorway: this kind of entranceway is a trope in Ward’s work, at once inviting and foreboding.

Once inside the cradle, you can barely make out the random distribution of car parts, mirrors, PVC and metal pipes, porcelain bathroom sinks, wicker bird cages, soccer balls, wooden doors, baby cradles—perhaps the installation’s namesake—tools, antique chairs, the lid of a grand piano, and even more improbable, a very large refrigerator bulging against the net. These are the material fetishes of failed utopias. Standing under the web, you feel the weight of majesty, mutilated and turned into trifle. The frail yarn, intersecting at points to form weird star patterns, signifies the ten­sion and entropy of material progress, much of it eked out of forced and unacknowledged Black labor. The netting is the last defense against total collapse: it forms a porous bulwark against the dispar­ity between hunger and consumption, set forth by a morally bank­rupt history. It forms a kind of refuge. A skein. A skein of Blackness.

This skein of Blackness is identical to Fred Moten’s definition of Blackness: “the extended movement of a specific upheaval, an ongo­ing irruption that anarranges every line…a strain that pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity.” This skein of Blackness is a fugitive tilt. The tensile strength of the yarn is great because it is a mix of pliable polyacrylic and sturdy wool, which figuratively fuses the Black fugitive past with the fugitive present that Ward “anarranges” into a huge, breathable tarpaulin.

This opaque breathing space shields you from the colossal wreck of empire.

I use the word shields to stress the overriding effect of the work’s protective gesture from Ozymandian decay. But for a work that is so tender, the word shields risks feeling militaristic; aggression is not part of the texture of this “hunger cradle.” What you expe­rience moving under the billowing mass is something far more archaic and vulnerable. A spider’s web with the strength of an ark, suspended in the air.

savior (1996)
i used to not think about the sugarcane countryside of my child­hood in St. Thomas. I preferred thinking about Portland, just north of St. Thomas: the other place I grew up. Portland is a place of exquisite beaches; in my mind, it is always blue and turquoise, whereas St. Thomas is green. A green edged with silver, the color of the sugarcane. As a boy, I feared walking past that green, even in broad daylight. But I feared walking through the crammed hous­ing areas of the former slave barracks standing next to the green cane even more. These rusty board-and-corrugated-metal shacks, some on stilts, seemed to be toppling down on each other, peren­nially drunk. But I loved repeating the names of these former bar­racks, so much that they became a kind of gnomic chant I recited when doing errands or chores at home:

Duckenfield, Bellrock Lane,

Jane Ash Corner, Golden Grove

Lyssons, Peacock Hill.

Only years later did I really start to wonder how such beautiful names could contain such deep sorrow and sadness, a sadness I must have felt when I skirted along the barrack roads and glimpsed the shacks in bright sunlight, seemingly dwarfed by the everlasting green cane.

Green, green, green, green, green.

But the green also concealed an old resilience that is not visible when looking at the landscape: that of Maroonage. I’m connected to it by blood, on my mother’s side. Maroon derives from cimar­rón, the Latin American Spanish word for “feral animal,” which by the seventeenth century had become the common word for a fugitive or a runaway enslaved person. Starting in 1655, when the British seized Jamaica from the Spanish, the captured Africans trafficked to the island fled the plantations into the mountains. In this rugged terrain—another kind of green, dense but subtler than the cane—these Maroons formed free communities. Though self-reliant in the mountains, the Maroons raided plantations, retriev­ing livestock and agricultural tools for their communities. They brought back other enslaved Africans to live free (technically as fugitives according to colonial law) among the trees and the riv­ers of the hills. They set plantations on fire. This led one of the foremost Maroonage historians, Carey Robinson, to give them the infamous sobriquet “Iron Thorn.” In many senses, from the eco­nomic to the psychic, the Maroons were the biblical thorns in the side of the British Empire. Their eighty-odd years of fierce guer­rilla warfare with the British—in which they defeated the British militia many times—seriously stymied the sugar industry on the island.

The soda bottle torches flit through the swamp, low and slow. What are they looking for? Hushed, incessant voices rise as if from the mud.

The war ended through skullduggery when the Maroons signed two peace treaties with the British by 1740. While the Maroons forced the British Empire to acknowledge Maroon sovereignty, they were made to do so in a manner that upheld chattel slavery, underscoring the impossibility of universal Black freedom. The treaties state that “all hostilities shall cease on both sides for ever” as long as the Maroons return fugitive slaves to the plantations and stick to the land (“the amount of fifteen hundred acres,” according to the first treaty) designated by the British. The final article of one treaty, which gave the British governor of Jamaica the eventual right to appoint leadership over the Maroons, definitively signaled their lost sovereignty to the British.

Nari Ward, Savior, 1996. Shopping cart, plastic garbage bags, cloth, bottles, metal fence, earth, wheel, mirror, chair, and clocks. 128 x 36 x 23 inches (325.1 x 91.4 x 58.4 cm). Installation view, Nari Ward: Re-Presence, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by EG Schempf

The resilience and ingenuity of Maroon culture is nowhere more spiritually present than in the abeng, a symbol at the center of Maroon life to this day. Carried by Maroon leaders, the abeng is a hollowed-out ram’s horn with a small hole at the narrow tip. In shape and design, it resembles the smaller Jewish shofar. Like the shofar, it is ceremonial and sacred. And as with the shofar, its shrill sound travels for miles, ringing the alarm of terror for the sake of redemption:

Blow ye the shofar in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain; let all the inhabitants of the earth tremble for the day of the LORD comes, for it is nigh at hand. (Joel 2:1)

When I first saw Ward’s sculpture Savior in the same exhibition at the New Museum, I heard the abeng. I heard it in the sculpture’s large horn shape. Constructed from a shopping cart, wrapped with black and red plastic garbage bags and studded with bits of mirror, cloth, metal fence, clock, bottles, and dirt, Savior resem­bles a behemoth that has walked through fire: a goatlike sacrificial animal crowned with a small chair. The sculpture is like a lookout peak of a mountain in St. Thomas, a spot in which a camouflaged Maroon might wait for the ultimate redeemer. I heard the abeng, blown not by a great Maroon warrior like Cudjoe or an elusive leader like Nanny but by a boy. I hear the abeng, its outlawed dia­lect, and look up.

I look down, and nothing is green.

A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains: a great people and a strong; there hath not been ever the like, nei­ther shall be any more after it, even to the years of many gener­ations. (Joel 2:2)

trophy (1993)
what are you looking for?

The soda bottle torches flit through the swamp, low and slow. What are they looking for? Hushed, incessant voices rise as if from the mud.

“Got one, got one.”

“Same, same.”

“Plenty more this side.”

The torches move in broken unison toward the voice.

What are you looking for?

It is May, crab hunting season, and the men are hunting land crabs in the swamp at Holland Bay, St. Thomas. Holland Bay—one more haunting Anglo-Saxon name!—has a long coastline thick with mangrove and wind-blown palm trees. Holland Bay used to be part of Holland Estate, one of the most profitable sugarcane plantations in the New World, owned by one of Jamaica’s wealth­iest sugar planters, Simon Taylor. Green swamp has now engulfed the estate and subsumed the plantation. Its vanishing makes the mud, in the wet season, an uncommonly fertile breeding place for crabs. The flames of the torches highlight the pale blue shells of the crabs as they try to scuttle back, in the thousands, to holes in the muddy ground. But a hand, quick and dexterous, often catches several at a time and puts them in sugar bags.

Consider the sugar bags.

Called “crocus bags” in Jamaica, they are burlap sacks woven mostly from Indian jute. The enslaved people, like the ones who lived and died on Holland Estate, filled millions of these bags with sugar. The bags were then shipped to markets in every crevice and corner of Europe.

What are you looking for?

When the Maroons raided the plantations, crocus bags were one of the staple items they brought back to their mountain com­munities. Almost every aspect of Maroon life (consider the abeng) was touched by these crocus bags. They were repurposed as cloth­ing, as gunpowder satchels, as bedding, as carriers for the abeng, as tinder wrapped around the ends of sticks to light aflame and hurl at the plantations.

What are you looking for?

The sugarcane burned. The green burned. The boiling house burned. The curing house burned. The great house burned. The barracks burned. The spectacular banality of avarice burned. All those souvenirs of suffering, candied into molten fire.

Thinking of that burning, I remember the conflagrations I used to see as a boy, when the green canes were lit and left to burn over­night before harvesting began in the morning. I remember those flames in the dark. In my memory, they resemble the thin gelati­nous glaze of Tropical Fantasy soda Ward poured on a baby stroller and left to harden with garbage bags, old clothes, plants, and other found objects, in a sculpture called, with striking irony, Trophy.

It is a nightmare vomit, a mutant of imperial creation. Do you see?

iron heavens (1995)
the torches, burning at the low ebb of predawn darkness, echo the stars melting like crushed ice in the sky.

I hear a conflagration, not of fire but of wings, myriad wings unfolding like those of bats, or those of angels, whether ascend­ing or descending it is impossible to tell, neither does it matter, for what I hear in these wings is an exultation that makes of the human, angel, and of the angel, human: such are the multitudi­nous wings rattling louder because charred. They clatter with joy, a joy eclipsing suffering and anything else that might corrupt the immense, apocalyptic upheaval of laughter in the swamp.

The wings are the same as the men’s hands, sinking deep into the mud to catch crabs. The wings are the same as the hands that sank deep to pick the cotton and sank deep to cut the cane with the same devotion, though not with the same fury. They are filling the crocus bags with crabs. They do so with an intimacy that comes from the authentic faith in the work of the hands of humans or angels. They reach deep down into the mud. It could be that they are reaching into the sky, opening a portal.

Nari Ward, Trophy, 1993. Baby stroller, found objects, sugar, Tropical Fantasy soda, car battery. 65 x 55 x 31 inches (165 x 138 x 79 cm). Installation view, Nari Ward: We the People, New Museum, New York, New York, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

breathing panel: oriented left and breathing panel: oriented right (2015)

I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

morning light sifts through the swamp. The otherworldly, ser­pentine roots of trees emerge from the ground, covered in morass and mud. The island has traveled overnight. A womb. A slave ship. An ark. None and all. The damp mud stench has the new freshness of sea salt. How, all along in the night, the sea was hidden! The salt freshness at dawn now suddenly fills their nostrils.

The Coca-Cola and 7-Up and Pepsi and Fanta bottle torches are out. The crab hunters, in a rugged single-file line, make their way home, back to the shacks of the barracks of Duckenfield, Bellrock Lane, Jane Ash Corner, Golden Grove, Lyssons, and Peacock Hill. Their crocus bags, twitching on their shoulders, are full of crabs.

Then the same looker from several hours ago, now at the back of the line, sees something unexpected: hundreds of herons rising from a cluster of swamp trees. The looker stops to watch them. The others keep walking toward the green, their voices sparse but loud. The herons fly seaward in a single soundless arc. Then, just before disappearing from sight, they seem to pause, as if on the threshold of an entrance in the sky. The looker’s eyes widen in astonishment. The birds disappear through the invisible portal, and when the looker turns to the others, mouth opened to shout to them, they too have already disappeared in the morning expanse of Caribbean light.

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His awards include the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022


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