If you find yourself on the streets of Harlem’s Sugar Hill (spanning roughly 145th St to 155th St, from Edgecombe Avenue west to Amsterdam) this afternoon, you may run into artist Nari Ward, who’ll be out canvassing local residents, urging them to share a friendly grin as part of his project Sugar Hill Smiles.
Today is Ward’s third day on the job, setting up shop outside grocery stores and subway entrances with a customized cart, inspired by the higgler carts favored by Jamaican street vendors. Ward’s inventory is a crate full of empty cans, each emblazoned with a Sugar Hill Smiles label, into which he asks passersby to smile.
At the bottom of each can, Ward has inserted a mirror. As people peer in, they catch a glimpse of their tentative smiles, and, almost invariably, break into an unrestrained toothy grin. It’s an extremely short, often bemused interaction. Afterward, Ward uses a hand-turned crank, mounted on the front of the cart, to mechanically seal each can, saving the smile for posterity.
Though the project seems playful, it is imbued with deeper meaning. Ward was inspired by Sugar Hill Golden Ale, a beer brewed by the Harlem Brewing Company that has appropriated the neighborhood’s name to sell a product that has no connection to the community. To Ward’s mind, the brewery clearly hopes to capitalize on associations with the Harlem Renaissance and the area’s glamorous, well-heeled past.
Ward is enlisting Sugar Hill residents to personally participate in a project designed to give back to the neighborhood. Each can will be sold for $10, with the proceeds benefiting local early education initiatives. The piece also allows the community to reclaim the African American stereotype of the smiling minstrel character. For the most part, the public is responding positively. Though some are indifferent, or even skeptical, those who take the time to listen are happy to participate.
The project is part of “If You Build It,” an exhibition curated by No Longer Empty, which is celebrating its fifth year curating site-specific, socially engaged exhibitions in New York City. For this show, the group has partnered with Broadway Housing Communities to inaugurate their newest site, Sugar Hill Development, designed by architect David Adjaye. Ward is just one of 20 artists who will show their work, which addresses social and political issues germane to Sugar Hill, in empty apartment units that will soon be the neighborhood’s newest affordable housing.
Now that this morning’s rain has cleared up, Ward and his team will be back in action as they attempt to collect some 2,000 smiles. By the end of the exhibition, he hopes his display will be empty, with all of the canned smiles sold to happy visitors.
“If You Build It” will be on view at Sugar Hill Development at 155th St and St. Nicholas Avenue, June 26–August 10.