In 1978, Senga Nengudi, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, and other artists – all part of a loose collective known as Studio Z – descended on an area under a Los Angeles freeway. Usually frequented by homeless people, the city’s highway underpasses are also normally filled with urban trash. That day, however, for a show hosted by Nengudi known as Ceremony for the motorway festivities, it has also hosted clarinetists, drummers, flautists, dancers, etc. Hassinger, who had pledged to participate on the day of the event, spun several times as traffic passed; Nengudi’s sculptures in pantyhose were scattered around a set of pylons. An empty space that usually had a static feel was briefly animated and filled with joy.
Ceremony for the motorway festivities has only been performed once, and like many of Nengudi’s works, it no longer exists. (The photographs documenting the show primarily act as showcases for the outfits donned by its attendees. In some cases, this puffy, distressed outfit resembles the plastic bags lining the highway.) Nengudi once described the work as a attempt to approach “an African village.” The fact that the dynamism of this improvised community is always palpable from photographs alone testifies to the ability of Nengudi and his collaborators to extract radiant energy from the most mundane things.
Nengudi’s work in all its indefinable splendor will be investigated this week at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition. Having already performed at the Museu de Arte in São Paulo, at the Lenbachhaus in Munich and at the Denver Art Museum in Colorado (the state that Nengudi has called home since 1989), the exhibition, entitled “Topologies”, considers her as a figure. essential in the history of performance art. While the exhibit includes a number of sculptures, including those from his famous “RSVP” series that use pantyhose and sand, his performances are often only evoked by documentation. Nevertheless, this is often enough to evoke the electric presence which animates the art of Nengudi.
In fact, Nengudi wrote that she often didn’t want to create things that had been around forever. “I have fought the joy of creating impermanent objects most of my life,” she wrote in a 1995 artist statement. “The greatest desire of an artist is to make objects that will last a lifetime. a life for posterity after all. It has never been a priority for me. My goal is to create an experience that vibrates with the connecting thread. “
Bodies are present, even in the absence of people, in Nengudi’s art.
In the early 1970s, during a short period when she was based in New York City, Nengudi created what she called “fabric spirits”. Made up of little more than fabric tied with a rope, these sculptures looked like arched bodies or peeled hides, and hung from fire exits, fences, and even a staircase near her apartment in East Harlem. In a statement at the time, Nengudi described them as containing “the inner soul or spirit of the people I saw on the streets of the city; especially in Harlem.
These sculptures, like many others by Nengudi, evoke humans whose bodies are no longer there – a theme that will be taken up a few years later in his “RSVP” series, which is perhaps his best known work. In these works, Nengudi relies on pantyhose purchased from thrift stores, filling them in places with sand and lengthening its nylon shape by knotting, pinning, and stretching it over corners, walls and floors. soils. The “RSVP” works, with their plump appearance, resemble limbs and genitals, and although many attributed to them feminine qualities, some also saw masculine attributes in them.
According to Linda Goode Bryant, who exhibited these works in her famous New York gallery Just Above Midtown in the 1970s, men reacted strongly to them. “It was a common reaction among male gallery visitors to subconsciously grab or cover parts of their bodies with their hands when they saw long, straight pins stuck in some of these bags,” Bryant wrote. in an essay published in the “Topologies” Catalog.
“RSVP” works are allusive, elusive and often difficult to analyze. Film researcher Rizvana Bradley has suggested that these works are not intended to be gendered, claiming that the sand they contain “mimics the weight of the human body and also marks its strange disfigurement.” When Nengudi started making them in 1975, shortly after giving birth to a child, she had black nannies in mind who repeatedly look after the children. “The body can only take too much pressure and pull until it gives way, never to return to its original shape,” she wrote in 1977.
Today, the most famous images in his “RSVP” works are of performers – many of whom are black women – wrapping their bodies through their long nylon bands. In a 1976 performance intended only for the camera, Nengudi pulled her skirt over her head and gently pulled out an “RSVP” sculpture. “I wanted to be a hidden image,” she wrote. And in another performance from 1977 that now only exists in photos, Maren Hassinger twists her body so that her arms and legs are lightly bound by Nengudi’s art. In one image, Hassinger puts his body in a bridge-like position, so that his back is supported by nylon. Due to the way the photography is done, it is not clear where it begins and where the sculpture ends.
African influences, avant-garde art and many more merge into Nengudi’s work.
Nengudi’s work has always been hybrid. Born in 1943 in Chicago under the name Sue Irons, she grew up in California and then attended present-day California State University, Los Angeles, where she studied art and dance. In 1965, while still a student, Irons interned in the art and dance education department of the Pasadena Art Museum, which at the time was a destination for his art presentations by point. She developed a fascination with the work of Paul Klee, who used unfathomable symbols that seem to contain their own hidden language.
Meanwhile, while in the school library, she stumbled across a book about the Japanese avant-garde and developed a love for Gutai, a post-war movement that sought to reduce all divisions between art and life drawing on readily available materials including dirt, fabric and light tubes. “What spoke to Nengudi about the images she saw was the ephemeral and everyday nature of the materials used, as well as the visible role accorded to acting and improvisation,” wrote Stephanie Weber, curator of the Lenbachhaus. Inspired by Gutai, she briefly moved to Japan on a scholarship and began studying Japanese theater forms like Noh and Kabuki.
When she returned to California in 1967, she was also involved in the scene around Watts Tower, in a predominantly black neighborhood of Los Angeles that had been transformed by protests sparked by police brutality two years earlier. . She fell into a scene centered around the Black-owned Brockman Gallery and David Hammons’ studio, and in the 1970s she deepened an interest in African art that was also explored by many of her colleagues at the time. In 1974, a boyfriend from Zaire renamed her Senga Nengudi – “Senga” means “to listen” or “to hear” in Duala, and “Nengudi” translates to “a woman who comes to power as a traditional healer”, explains the artist in a 2013 oral history.
His subsequent performances manifested an interest in African art. For 1978/79 performance Masked taping, she tied pieces of duct tape to her body and moved around, exploring “elements of my African heritage of mask making, dancing, rites and rituals,” the artist wrote. Meanwhile, art historian Kellie Jones has logged on Ceremony for the motorway festivities traditions like Gèlèdé, a Nigerian masquerade supposed to celebrate female power.
Common materials have a new life in Nengudi’s art.
Nengudi’s first mature works of art were a series known as “Water Compositions,” for which she filled plastic bags with water tinted in rich shades of purple, green and blue. by food coloring. These works contrasted sharply with what was expected of black artists at the time. “Nobody even spoke to him because we were all doing political art,” Hammons told Jones in his 2017 book. South of Pico. “She couldn’t understand. The “Water Compositions” later appeared at the Rath Museum in Geneva, in a 1971 exhibit titled “8 African-American Artists,” which sparked protests against the exhibit because it was not political enough. . (That same year, she stopped producing “Water Compositions”, fearing that they might be connected to the burgeoning waterbed market.)
Despite Nengudi’s initial rejection of her art, she continued to work in this vein throughout her career, drawing on “low” materials and breathing new life into them through her sculpture. Performed in the style of Gutai characters like Kazuo Shiraga, who once fashioned a circle of mud and called it art, or Atsuko Tanaka, who formed a dress from lighting tubes, Nengudi gave this style a new lease of life. meaning by attaching its materials to the urban. spaces around it.
It is a sensitivity best seen in Nengudi’s installation in 1988 Bulemia, whose untranslatable title was given by Yoruba artist and priest Charles Abramson. The room-sized work was filled with newspapers – they covered the walls with them and were smashed into balls on the floor; a now lost audio component accompanied it. The title of the installation – and to some extent the work itself – didn’t mean much, but for Nengudi the piece was very important. She once described it as “a great library of life that you enter to freely collect information.”