Exhibition includes works by Lorna Simpson, Zanele Muholi, and Jenny Holzer, as well as new acquisitions of work by, Ingrid Mwangi Hutter, Joe Wardwell, and Rivane Neuenschwander.

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) presents Wordplay, a new collection exhibition exploring a defining aspect of contemporary art: the role of text in visual expression. Since the emergence of conceptual art in the 1960s, artists have used “text art” to probe philosophical questions, express and subvert political messages, challenge notions of identity, and connect their artwork to multiple references, writers, and cultural icons. Wordplay features 35 works—including several recent acquisitions on view for the first time—by artists such as Kenturah Davis, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Joe Wardwell, alongside signature works by Renée Green, Glenn Ligon, Jenny Holzer, Zanele Muholi, and Lorna Simpson, among others. The exhibition is organized by Ruth Erickson, Barbara Lee Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, and Erika Umali, the ICA’s first Curator of Collections, and will be on view from Jan. 30 through Dec. 1, 2024. 

“Since the ICA began collecting in 2006, we have built a forward-thinking, 20th and 21st-century collection, distinguished by its representation of women artists and commitment to diversity,” said Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director. “Wordplay is an exciting presentation of the many ways that artists use text and language to convey ideas, promote interactivity, and create symbols, composition, color and form. 

“The term ‘Wordplay’, or a play on words, references the witty use of words and their meanings, bringing attention to language as a subject of a text,” said curators Ruth Erickson, Barbara Lee Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, and Erika Umali, Curator of Collections. “Likewise, the artists featured in Wordplay use text and language in creative ways that heighten our awareness of modes of communication and the acts of seeing and reading.”  

Wordplay draws primarily from the ICA’s permanent collection to showcase how contemporary artists have played with words to animate and expand their art practices. The exhibition will debut a number of recent acquisitions including:  

Collen Mfazwe, August House, Johannesburg (2012) by South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi. This photograph is part of Muholi’s Faces and Phases series archiving new horizons in queer self-representation. In each photograph the sitters choose their posture, setting, and dress inviting viewers to, as Muholi says, “contemplate questions such as: What does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialized and classed selves in rich and diverse ways?” In this work, a sash reading “Princess” sits across the chest of the sitter. 

If You Got the Money Honey (2021) by Boston-based artist Joe Wardwell. This painting is Wardwell’s first cityscape, presenting a view of downtown Boston from Wardwell’s Dorchester studio. Created in response to the impending demolition of his studio and Boston’s increasingly unaffordable housing, the artist layers text ranging from lyrics from the Guns N’ Roses song that gives the work its title, to quotations sourced from cultural figures with ties to Massachusetts, including Malcolm X, Buckminster Fuller, and Donna Summer. This matrix of text and landscape evokes the collective and polyphonic voice of an urban environment.  

Static Drift (2001) by biracial artist Ingrid Mwangi Hutter, born in Kenya to an African father and a European mother. To create this diptych, Ingrid Mwangi Hutter applied stencils to her own abdomen and allowed the sun to burn her skin, leaving parts under and overexposed on her body. One photograph shows the map of Germany outlined in darker brown with words “burn out country,” and the other shows a map of the continent of Africa in lighter brown with the words “bright dark continent.” The artist creates a literal map on her body, visualizing her experience as a biracial woman living in both Kenya and Germany—perceived as white in Africa and Black in Germany—using color, geographical shapes, and language on her own body. 

Zé Carioca e amigos (Um festival embananado)/Joe Carioca and Friends (The Festival Went Bananas) (2005) by São Paulo-based artist Rivane Neuenschwander. This interactive installation references a famous Brazilian comic strip featuring the character José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper Brazilian parrot first created in 1941 by cartoonist José Carlos de Brito. Neuenschwander strips the comic of its original text and image, leaving only vibrant, technicolor squares and blank speech bubbles on the wall. The artist invites the public to continue the artwork by writing or drawing in the mural blocks, resulting in a collective form of spontaneous social and individual expression. 

This collection exhibition features works by 16 artists: Jennifer Bartlett, Kenturah Davis, Taylor Davis, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Shepard Fairey, Renée Green, Jenny Holzer, Glenn Ligon, Ingrid Mwangi Hutter, Guadalupe Maravilla, Zanele Muholi, Rivane Neuenschwander, Tschabalala Self, Lorna Simpson, Travares Strachan, and Joe Wardwell.  

About the ICA   

Since its founding in 1936, the ICA has shared the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, imagination, and provocation that contemporary art offers with its audiences. A museum at the intersection of contemporary art and civic life, the ICA has advanced a bold vision for amplifying the artist’s voice and expanding the museum’s role as educator, incubator, and convener. Its exhibitions, performances, and educational programs provide access to the breadth and diversity of contemporary art, artists, and the creative process, inviting audiences of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the excitement of new art and ideas. The ICA is located at 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA, 02210. The Watershed is located at 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, MA 02128. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our website at icaboston.org. Follow the ICA on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.   

Media Contact   

Theresa Romualdez, press@icaboston.org