Exodus was created for the 1993 Venice Biennale, where Ward was selected to participate in Aperto, the section devoted to young artists. He exhibited alongside young artists from New York, like Matthew Barney, Janine Antoni, and John Currin, and an even wider collection of artists from around the world. The exhibition marked a moment of increased globalization of the contemporary art world and also coincided with the rise of other large scale biennial exhibitions in cities around the world. Ward would go on to participate in many of these exhibitions, responding to the varied sites where they took place with the same material and historical sensitivity he brought to working at home in Harlem.
Exodus borrows its title from the flight of the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, but the work also had resonances with more contemporary experiences of migration and escape from the escape of freed slaves in the American south to the experience of refugees in Europe during the 1990s when Ward created the work. Ward also connected the work to his experience of the changes he was observing in Harlem, a neighborhood historically built upon several different waves of migration from both the American south and later from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. By the early 1990s, the first steps towards the gentrification of Harlem were taking place – a process that in many cases would lead to the displacement of small businesses and long-time residents from their homes. Ward sensed these changes taking place and would go on to make several other works about the changes that Harlem has experienced and what they mean for its communities.
Audio guide: “Nari Ward: We the People,” New Museum, New York, 2019.