senga nengudi - rsvp


ARTISTS HAVE LONG USED EVERYDAY OBJECTS as inspiration, tools and materials, often transforming and utilizing them in entirely new and unrecognizable ways. A generation before Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto began filling nylon textiles with spices, Senga Nengudi (below left) was twisting, stretching and manipulating nylon pantyhose, testing their tension and form by stuffing them with sand, rocks and other matter. Conceptual and heavy with symbolism, the soft sculptural works in various hues of African-descended skin tones always read familiar. Her materials weren’t masked. Nengudi was clearly making serious art—exploring race, gender, culture and spirituality—with women’s tights and pantyhose.

Portrait of Senga Nengudi by Ron PollardA presentation of Nengudi’s works opened this week at White Cube Gallery in London. “Senga Nengudi: Alt,” her first-ever solo exhibition in the UK, features a selection of 1970s creations and new “Reverie” works.

Describing Nengudi’s works as “free-form, abstract and biomorphic,” the gallery notes their appearance and symbolism: “Hung on the wall but stretching out three-dimensionally into the gallery space, the materiality of these sculptures suggests skin, breasts, or bodily organs and places an emphasis on the performative body through its palpable sense of tactility.”

Over the past 40 years, Nengudi’s pioneering practice has incorporated visual arts with performance and dance. She made a name for herself during the 1970s Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles, where she was affiliated with Studio Z, a group of African American artists engaged in cutting-edge conceptual and experimental art. Nengudi often employed her sculptures in choreographed works performed by herself and others and frequently collaborated with fellow artists David Hammons and Maren Hassinger, who over the years has performed “RSVP” (1976-77), one of Nengudi’s most well-known works.

The International Review of African American Art recently published a detailed essay by Gylbert Coker about Nengudi’s life and work. The article notes she was born Sue Irons in Chicago in 1943 and traces her path to art and early influences. She studied visual art and dance at California State University at Los Angeles and through a special graduate program traveled to Japan, a complex experience informed by Japanese post-WWII perceptions of America, ritual expectations of gender roles, and liberation found in traditional and experimental Japanese art-making approaches and techniques.

“Returning to Los Angeles, Nengudi began to analyze and explore artistic and cultural connections between her experience in Japan to her African American experiences and her explorations into the history of African art,” Coker writes.

According to the article, she took a social work position helping unwed teenage mothers, and taught art at the Pasadena Art Museum and the Watts Towers Arts Center. After earning her master’s degree from Cal State LA in 1971, she moved to New York where she found kinship with another community of African American artists and scholars pushing creative boundaries and drawing connection between African American and African cultures through music, spiritual dance and folk art. After a few years, she returned to Los Angeles in 1974.


Senga Nengudi RSVP Reverie C 2014 (high res)
SENGA NENGUDI, “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘C’,” 2014 (nylon mesh, sand and found object). | © the artist, Photo by Ron Pollard, Courtesy White Cube


In April, Nengudi spoke to Artforum about finding her focus early on. “When I began working it was very personal. I wanted to express how I was feeling about my body and my mind. I had just had children, so I was investigating what my life looked like as an observer as well as a person experiencing it. This led me to work with nylon stockings because I wanted to find something that had the elasticity, the texture, and even the coloring of the body,” she says. “Horrific things that are done to women, like rape, as well as what we women do to ourselves, like plastic surgery, are powerful afflictions that the type of distortions made by the nylons can directly speak to.”

“Horrific things that are done to women, like rape, as well as what we women do to ourselves, like plastic surgery, are powerful afflictions that the type of distortions made by the nylons can directly speak to.”
— Senga Nengudi in Artforum

NENGUDI LIVES AND WORKS in Colorado Springs, Colo. Earlier this year, her work was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The exhibition, “Senga Nengudi: The Material Body” featured work spanning four decades and was described as the first museum presentation to examine her work in depth over time. The show ran concurrently with “Senga Nengudi: The Peforming Body” at RedLine, an impressive local contemporary art gallery cum visual arts center.

A profile in the Denver Post, reported in anticipation of the exhibitions, notes that the artist has lived for 25 years in Colorado Springs, where she made a home and raised her children, while Los Angeles and New York continued as bases for her career. She largely remained under the radar in her adopted state.

“It’s rare for any artist to have simultaneous solo exhibitions and a particular feat in this case; those are the city’s two best spots for contemporary art right now. But Denver has some catching up to do, and Nengudi has the body of work to pull it off,” art critic Ray Mark Rinaldi writes.


Senga Nengudi RSVP Reverie WB 2014 (high res)
SENGA NENGUDI, “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘W/B’,” 2014 (nylon mesh and sand). | © the artist, Photo by Ron Pollard, Courtesy White Cube


He also contends that Nengudi, who was featured in the exhibitions “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960 to 1980” and “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981,” sometimes feels confined by her background, her socio-political subject matter and perceptions of her work that proceed her.

“That past has caused her work to be labeled by her race and gender, and it can have overtones that are both racially aware and feminist. Anyone who creates a web of pantyhose and has a woman tangled up in it, is surely going to be labeled a feminist,” Rinaldi writes.

“Nengudi has both rejected this idea and annexed it with authority, at times taking on pseudonyms to disguise her identity, free herself from preconceptions and investigate the ways viewers respond. She paints under the name Harriet Chin, shoots photos as Propecia Leigh, writes poetry using Lily Bea Moor.” Nengudi discusses the significance of naming and her choice of fluid identities in the artist statement on her website.

Interestingly, Nengudi’s London exhibition coincides with a presentation of works by Hammons— her longtime friend with whom she first collaborated in the 1970s—currently on view at White Cube Mason’s Yard through January 2015.

About her innovative practice, the London gallery says, “While it can clearly be positioned in relation to both Minimalism and Feminism, Nengudi’s work resists any defined political or ethnic content, but rather, evokes the fragility and resilience of both mind and body.” CT


“Senga Nengudi: Alt” is on view in London at White Cube Bermondsey from Nov. 26, 2014 to Jan. 18, 2015. A forthcoming publication coincides with the exhibition.


IMAGES: Top of page, Senga Nengudi’s “RSVP” performed by Maren Hassinger, Still from “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” teaser video by Walker Art Center; At left, Portrait of Senga Nengudi by Ron Pollard. | Courtesy White Cube


Senga Nengudi RSVP Reverie Scribe 1 2014 (high res)
SENGA NENGUDI, “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘Scribe’,” 2014 (Nylon mesh, sand and found metals). | © the artist, Photo by Ron Pollard, Courtesy White Cube


Senga Nengudi RSVP Reverie Scribe 2014 (high res) 1
SENGA NENGUDI, Detail of “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘Scribe’,” 2014 (Nylon mesh, sand and found metals). | © the artist, Photo by Ron Pollard, Courtesy White Cube


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.