Over more than five decades, Nengudi has developed a practice that encompasses poetic, enigmatic objects and installations as well as performances, films, and photographs exploring the interactions of performers with and amid her three-dimensional works. Despite a long and rich career over more than five decades, she has only come to wider attention more recently, and her achievements find powerful reverberations in contemporary art.
The beginning of Nengudi’s career in the mid-1960s coincided with a tumultuous period in US history, which included the civil rights movement as well as the start of the women’s movement and second-wave feminism. These events were formative for the artist, who would go on to produce ephemeral, often abstract, performance-based, and frequently collaborative works addressing such issues as race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as labor and the passage of time. The intersections of passionate, sometimes conflicting, political concerns among peers, colleagues, and society at large produced an often fraught climate of debate over the most effective ways for artists to address the problems facing society.
As with other Black artists working in abstraction, Nengudi was considered by some to fall short of political urgency or a specific message due to her use of evocation, rather than direct representation, in addressing issues facing Black Americans. Despite initial opposition to her efforts, Nengudi has proceeded over the ensuing decades to develop a generous, versatile artistic practice that demonstrates how abstract sculpture can address political issues with compassion, humor, and a diverse community of allies. Indeed, she has expanded our idea of what can be considered political about a work of art. As she explained in 2018, “Simply by being, that’s a political statement. So, whatever comes out of me has all those elements of me in it: I’m black, I’m a woman, at this point I’m a woman of a certain age, which also has issues related to it. So simply by being, I am those things.” 1
Born in 1943 as Sue Ellen Irons in Chicago, Illinois, Nengudi grew up largely on the west coast, in Pasadena and Los Angeles. Her early interests in art and dance led her to study both, eventually resulting in a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in dance at Los Angeles State College, followed by a master’s degree in sculpture at the same institution, which by then had changed its name to California State College, Los Angeles. In addition to her formal education, Nengudi has identified her experiences teaching as central to her development—particularly her time in the mid-1960s at the Watts Towers Art Center, which was founded by artist Noah Purifoy in the Black neighborhood of Watts after the 1965 Watts Uprising, near the fantastical complex built by Simon Rodia from found objects. Education has remained important to Nengudi, who continued teaching until her retirement in 2008 from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS) Visual Arts and Performing Arts Department.
In her formative years, Nengudi drew inspiration from a wide range of art. As an educator at the Pasadena Art Museum, she encountered sculptures by some of the most important contemporary artists of the period, including Claes Oldenburg, Craig Kauffman, and Richard Serra. Importantly, these were shown in the context of a varied, cross-cultural exhibition program, ranging from European modernism to Japanese paintings to Ghanaian textiles. She also found inspiration in the example of a slightly older generation of Black artists working in California, such as Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar. A book on the Japanese avant-garde introduced her to the Gutai group, whose radically experimental art movement in post-war Japan challenged traditional means of creation by emphasizing unconventional materials, process over finished artworks, and new contexts for art. 2
Nengudi’s fascination with Gutai prompted her to enter a post-graduate program in Japan in 1966. Although she did not experience Gutai’s works or artists in person, the trip brought her into contact with traditional Noh and Kabuki theater. These would play an important role in the development of her approach to performance, as would the burgeoning interest taken by the Black Arts Movement in traditional forms of African art and their relation to ritual. While Nengudi did not engage in the direct political messaging of some of her peers, the diasporic African experience was key to her conception of artistic identity and practice. In 1974, after three years in New York, she returned to Los Angeles with the name by which she is known today: Senga, as she has explained, means “woman of the village that people come to [for advice]” in the Douala language of Cameroon, while Nengudi connotes a woman who “comes to power as a traditional healer.” 3
Before that moment, Nengudi had already faced the challenge of political criticism from peers, with her early Water Composition series (1970), clear vinyl sacks filled with water and tinted with shades of red, purple, green, and blue. Of them, David Hammons later recalled, “This was the Sixties. No one would even speak to her because we were all doing political art. She couldn’t relate. She wouldn’t even show around other black artists because her work was so ‘outrageously’ abstract.”4 Likewise—and contrary to Hammons’s assertion that Nengudi did not show with other Black artists—these sculptures were included the 1971 exhibition 8 artistes afro-américains at the Musée Rath in Geneva, Switzerland, where they were met with protests because the art included (by Romare Bearden, Bob Thompson, and others in addition to Nengudi) was not considered political enough. 5
Nengudi stopped making the Water Compositions in 1971, later attributing the reason for her abandonment to the sudden popularity of waterbeds, rather than the criticism she had received. 6 (Her explanation offers an illustration of the sly humor that runs throughout her work.) Yet the Water Compositions introduce characteristics and themes that would persist in her best-known body of work, the long-running series R.S.V.P. (1975-ongoing), discussed below. The colorful vinyl sacks have been frequently likened to bodies in the way that their forms shift and move. Nengudi herself described them as “the beginning of my sensual self,” as they highlighted the connection between living body and sculptural form. 7 This connection was deepened through activations based on physical encounter: the pliable sculptures were designed to be touched and moved by the viewer: “I really wanted to have something that people could feel and that had a sense of the body.” 8 That sense of a body connects Nengudi’s work to emerging feminist art, an artistic context in which softness, touch, and movement resonate with political concerns.
Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978
10 c-prints, contact sheet
Photographer: Quaku / Roderick Young
© Senga Nengudi, 2022
Courtesy of Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York
Nengudi’s intention for the viewer to handle the Water Compositions rejects the concept of the solitary artistic creator, and she later became a member of Studio Z, an influential Los Angeles collective of artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Several of these became Nengudi’s frequent collaborators, including sculptors Hammons and, especially, Maren Hassinger. Working with them and members of Studio Z, Nengudi staged the 1978 performance Ceremony for Freeway Fets underneath a freeway overpass in Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard near the Los Angeles Convention Center, which had opened just a few years prior in 1971. Situated in a kind of non-place, this plot of land typically glimpsed from the car window while driving by was made into a mythic space: Nengudi has said she was drawn to the location because the tiny palms and shrubs amid the dirt and concrete “had a sense of Africa.” 9 Unrehearsed and improvisational, the performance involved Hammons and Hassinger enacting male and female spirits amid an installation of Nengudi’s nylon stocking sculptures. Combining her interests in Japanese culture, notably Kabuki theater, Yoruba ritual, and other diasporic practices, Nengudi established—if only for a moment during the performance—a Black space that imagined a possible new future. By locating her work in this public place that was desolate, trash-ridden, and beneath infrastructure that had displaced a community in the name of “progress,” Nengudi created a political work that implicitly addressed issues of racism, segregation, and gentrification, expanding and disrupting the idea of what constitutes a political artist.
In a performance protesting the tokenization of Black women artists in exhibitions devoted to feminist art, Nengudi, along with Hassinger, staged Spooks Who Sat at the Door on the steps of the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1983, which had mounted an exhibition of women artists but only included one Black woman, Hassinger. Nengudi and Hassinger stood outside the museum in silence, wearing white sheets and holding up products with Black stereotypes like Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Uncle Ben’s rice. As Nengudi recalled, “They didn’t get it. Once again we were invisible.” 10
Nengudi has further probed names as a signifier of race or ethnicity through her Personas (1998-present) an ongoing performance featuring alternate identities who work in different media: Propecia Leigh for photography, Harriet Chin for drawing, Lily B. Moor for writing. Growing out of an experience that caused her to examine her own bias—viewing an African-style painting created by an Asian artist—the Personas may be seen as an extension of the self-determined identity that began when the artist took on the name Senga Nengudi, and as a way to subvert expectations of what an artist’s work “should” look like based upon presumptions of their race, ethnicity, or culture.
Despite her frequent sense of alienation, Nengudi continued to pursue abstract representations of issues that were deeply personal while at the same time universally experienced by women, artists, and Black Americans. The response she received to the Water Compositions likely informed the direction her work took after the mid-1970s, especially the R.S.V.P. series, which replaced the clear vinyl with brown pantyhose and the colored water with sand (in some cases), more emphatically evoking the body, in particular the Black female body. Like the Water Compositions, activation of Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. installations is also predicated on touch: the series title corresponds to the French phrase répondez-vous s’il vous plait (please respond). The sculptures are activated through contact between the living bodies of performers and the surrogate bodies of the sculpture – garments that once themselves contained living beings and were chosen for the “residue of energy” 11 left by their wearers. As part of these performances, the artist has said that the dancer’s role is to “partner with the sculpture,” 12 exploring the relationship of one body to another through movements that recall the rituals of interpersonal exchange.
Her work has continued to explore these themes in new and provocative ways. In Bulemia (1988), Nengudi deliberately misspelled the name of an eating disorder as a title for an installation and performance redefining the nature of creativity as a process of taking in material, then releasing it in an altered version expressing the artist’s concerns. Bulemia’s enclosed space was covered in newspapers—another ephemeral material—with dominance given to positive news concerning Black art, life, and history, its contents emphasized with swaths of gold paint. It was accompanied by “Double Think Bulemia: Mouth to Mouth: Conversations on Being, ” a satellite broadcast of music and conversation including Charles Abramson, Carol Blank, John Outterbridge, Darryl Sevad, Kaylynn Sullivan, SunRa, and Cecil Taylor. 13 For her recent A.C.Q. (Air Conditioning Queen), Nengudi returned to the central concept of the R.S.V.P. sculptures and coupled pantyhose with refrigerator parts, some of which were functional, stirring the air gently even as their mechanical forms and sharp edges created a powerful contrast with the presumably more fragile nylon mesh. Sandmining B (2020) creates an environment of sand, populated with metal objects, knotted nylon mesh, and sprinklings of pigment suggesting both a detritus-filled landscape and the setting for a regenerative performance. In fact, Sandmining B builds upon Nengudi’s own tradition, since the 1990s, of creating works with sand that draw upon varied rituals across cultures, such as Navajo sand painting and the creation of Tibetan sand mandalas, with sand used as a means to restore a positive balance in the world. Nengudi has explored the mutability of the body throughout her career, utilizing materials that mimic anatomy or physically interact with performers and viewers. The artist’s training in dance brought her attention to perceptions of the human figure and made her keenly aware of the weight, placement, and kinetic potential of bodies in space. Nengudi has cited consideration of her own body as a shaping force in her career, describing how the physical demands of dance and her failure to conform to the willowy figure idealized in the dance world guided her instead to a sculptural practice. In 1974 after the birth of her first son, Nengudi became fascinated by the resiliency of her pregnant body and began in her R.S.V.P. series to work with media that could capture the elasticity, skin tones, and form of flesh. Pulled taut, weighted and swollen with sand, pantyhose worn by loved ones and strangers could become a stand-in for the bodies of women in high-pressure situations, Black wet-nurses with bodies drained and reshaped by suckling infants, perfection-seekers who modify their appearance through surgery, or aging bodies showing the effects of time and gravity. Nengudi describes the character of nylon mesh as an analog to flesh, “From tender, tight beginnings to sagging end ... The body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape.”14 Works such as Performance with R.S.V.P. (1976), Performance Piece (1977), and Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978) activated Nengudi’s nylon mesh sculptures and often involved collaboration with her studio mates, particularly Hassinger. Nengudi continues to work with other artists and dancers in the creation of new performances that activate the sculptures and expand their realm of signification.
Furthermore, the ephemeral nature of performance has made documentation an essential element in Nengudi’s practice (as well as those of her contemporaries). Many of her works are only known to us now through photographic and film recordings and the artist’s notes, including Rapunzel (1981), a performance staged at an old Catholic school being demolished, in which Nengudi assumed the guise of the fairy tale heroine trapped in a tower by donning a head-and-face piece made with nylon mesh and a remnant of one of Hammons’s works involving human hair. In fact, early works, like Performance with R.S.V.P. and Performance Piece were initially presented not for an audience but for the camera. Later collaborative and performative works would be staged for audiences but were also documented.
Performance Piece, 1978
Silver gelatin prints, triptych
118 3/8 × 41 in. (300.8 × 104.1 cm)
Photographer: Harmon Outlaw
© Senga Nengudi, 2022
Courtesy of Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York
Nengudi’s work as a whole is radically ephemeral, particularly for sculpture, in its creation and activation as well as in its materials and forms. The R.S.V.P. sculptures were never intended to be preserved in perpetuity. They were, in the words of the artist, “experiments” presented for a viewer to experience, the title offering an invitation to relate to the sculptures, not physically as in the performances, but intellectually. “Making objects that will last lifetimes…has never been a priority for me,” Nengudi noted in 1993. “My purpose is to create an experience that will vibrate with the connecting thread.” 15
About Senga Nengudi
Senga Nengudi was born in 1943 in Chicago, Illinois; she lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Nengudi’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions organized by Henry Moore Institute (2018); the Baltimore Museum of Art (2018); Art + Practice, Los Angeles (2018); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2017); and the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (2017), as well as her recent retrospective, Topologies, which originated at the Lenbachhaus, Munich in 2019 and traveled to Denver Art Museum, Denver (2020); Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil (2020); and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia (2021). Her work has been prominently featured in international biennials including the 57th Venice Biennale (2017) and the 54th Carnegie International (2007).
Nengudi was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2020 and has been a recipient of Denver Art Museum Key Award (2019); Women’s Caucus For Art Lifetime Achievement Award (2010); and the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2005). Her works are held in institutional collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; The Brooklyn Museum, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Tate Modern, London; and Jerusalem Museum of Art, Jerusalem.
1 Senga Nengudi quoted in Anna Souter, “Being Born Black in America Is a Political Act”: An Interview With Senga Nengudi,” Hyperallergic, September 26, 2018: https://hyperallergic.com/462256/being-born-black-in-america-is-a-political-act-an-interview-with-senga-nengudi/ (accessed August 12, 2022).
2 Michel Tapié and Tore Haga, Avant-garde Art in Japan (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1962).
3 “Senga Nengudi in conversation with Elissa Author: Excerpts from an oral history interview, Denver, Colorado, July 9-11, 2013,” in Stephanie Weber and Matthias Mühling, eds., Senga Nengudi: Topologien / Topologies (Hirmer: Lenbachaus / MASP, 2019), 291.
4 David Hammons quoted in Kellie Jones, “Interview with David Hammons,” Real Life Magazine 16 (Autumn 1986), 2.
5 The exhibition was organized by Henri Ghent, a Black curator and one of the co-founders of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, which formed in 1969 in response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Harlem on My Mind, which had overlooked the work of Black artists.
Anna Straetmans, “Contextures—Connection, Background, and Influence,” in Senga Nengudi: Topologies, p. 325.
6 “Senga Nengudi in conversation with Elissa Author,” 289-90.
7 “Senga Nengudi in conversation with Elissa Author,” 289.
8 “Senga Nengudi in conversation with Elissa Author, 291.
9 Nick Stillman, “Senga Nengudi’s ‘Ceremony of Freeway Fets’ and other Los Angeles Collaborations,” East of Borneo, December 7, 2011: https://eastofborneo.org/articles/senga-nengudis-ceremony-for-freeway-fets-and-other-los-angeles-collaborations/ (accessed August 12, 2022).
10 Senga Nengudi in Joshua Chambers-Letson, “b.O.s. 2.4 / Spooks Who Sat By the Door,” ASAP Journal, June 18, 2018, https://asapjournal.com/b-o-s-2-4-spooks-who-sat-by-the-door-for-miriam-petty-joshua-chambers-letson/ (accessed August 12, 2022).
11 “Senga Nengudi Talks about Her Exhibitions in Denver,” Artforum, April 3, 2014, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/senga-nengudi-talks-about-her-exhibitions-in-denver-46049
12 Lovia Gyarkye, “An Artist's Continuing Exploration of the Human Form,” T Magazine, November 9, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/t-magazine/senga-nengudi-art.html.
13 “Double Think Bulemia” on the the African American Performance Art Archive, https://aapaa.org/artists/senga-nengudi/senga-nengudi-doube-think-bulimia/.
14 Senga Nengudi, Statement on nylon mesh works, 1977, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, Senga Nengudi Papers, 1966-2017.
15 Senga Nengudi, Artist Statement, 1995, Thomas Erben archives, New York; reprinted in Senga Nengudi: Topologies, 242.