BAHM: 2.6.17 Senga Nengudi
Senga Nengudi is a key figure of a group of black avant-garde artists working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s. She is best known for her work in found object sculpture and performance, notably her use of nylon stockings to produce minimalist sculptures, activated by movement. She is considered an integral figure to feminist and black art history and has been included in landmark shows such as Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 at MOCA in 1998, Wack!: Art and the Feminist Revolution at MOCA in 2007 and Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at the Hammer Museum in 2011.
While Nengudi’s work was intimately concerned with the expressions of black feminine identity it was not met with such recognition within the Black Arts Community, “due to her non-representational tendencies” (Black West, Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles, Kellie Jones). Her first foray into performance, the one-time, fully improvisational, Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978), took place under a section of L.A. freeway with musicians playing jazz music, artists David Hammons, Maren Hassinger and several affiliates of the Studio Z Collective. The performers, clad in costumes that largely resemble the West African Masquerade tradition, improvised masculine and feminine energies with Nengudi acting as the unifying force. This was a response to the Watts Riots, which the artist witnessed first hand, and the perceived strained relationship between men and women in the black community during the 1970s. It also incorporated themes of Afrofuturism, for which Sun Ra was a large inspiration.
Perhaps her most famous and long-running series, R.S.V.P. utilizes a commonly found material, discarded nylon stockings in various flesh tones, as a sort of physical and psychological prosthesis. The materials are stretched to their limits, twisted, knotted, weighed down with sand and dirt and dangled, drooping from, or rather, climbing up, the walls of the gallery space. One piece resembles coiled and sun-bleached Afro hair. Another piece hangs like a suit, waiting for the performer, often Nengudi’s frequent collaborator, Hassinger, to operate its elasticity with fluid and controlled movement. As Kellie Jones notes, “In moving away from figurative representation in two dimensions, through dematerialized practices and performances, ultimately and ironically, they were led back to the black body as form.” Nengudi’s work, operating in minimal and abstracted language, quite literally reveals the black body as inseparable object and action.
Soundtrack: Sun Ra - Space is the Place (full album)
Senga Negudi's "Ceremony for Freeway Fets" and Other Los Angeles Collaborations by Nick Stillman for East of Borneo
Interview with Naomi Beckwith, Curator of the MOCA, Chicago
Hyperallergic Article by Noel Black: The Improvised Body: The Reemergence of Senga Nengudi
Essay by Jessica Bell Brown: Senga Nengudi: Of Gravity and Grace