Tour: 'Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures' at the Fisher Museum in LA
I recently made a pilgrimage of sorts to Los Angeles to celebrate one of the city's most important black female artists, Senga Nengudi. I came to know of the importance of her work to LA's art scene in the 60's and 70's through the book, South of Pico by Kellie Jones (a truly wonderful book that I featured on my Reading List). The goal was to see Nengudi's solo exhibition Improvisational Gestures at the Fisher Museum at USC which closed that weekend. As an added bonus, there was the 'A Day With Senga Nengudi' symposium at CAAM, which consisted of a few panel discussions and a performance. Unfortunately, I missed a couple of the panels but I did catch one with Senga and longtime collaborators, Maren Hassinger and Barbara McCullough, as well as a performance of Senga's piece R.S.V.P. (1977), done by Cheryl Banks-Smith and Breeze Smith. I also vlogged the whole trip (for the first time!) and I will link the video below, so have a look!
You may remember a few months back, I had the chance to see Senga speak along with several other important black female artists, at the closing symposium for We Wanted a Revolution at CAAM, so by now I feel a bit like an official fangirl. It's always so wonderful to hear her share her insights into the friendships and community of artists (STUDIO Z, anyone?) that surrounded the work and made it so impactful at the time and still today. The exhibition at the Fisher Museum was an important survey of the artist's expansive works in sculpture, performance, and video, and I feel so fortunate to have seen it. Now, let me walk you through the exhibit!
The first room consisted of a number of photographs documenting various performances by Senga and her collaborators. In two photos we see Maren Hassinger "activating" a sculpture through a performance of R.S.V.P. in 1977. The sculpture, which I believe has taken many different shapes throughout the performances, used pantyhose stretched and pinned to the wall, Hassinger moving her body through the dangling pieces of nylon, leaning into and stretching the material.
The instant familiarity of the materials to many women makes Nengudi's work a moving commentary on the elasticity of the female psyche and physical form. She also has the ability to completely transform such a cheap and ordinary material, to make it unrecognizable at first glance. This transformation speaks to her ingenuity and the many limitations fueling her creativity as a struggling artist who faced an exclusively white art scene in LA at the time. As Nengudi and her contemporaries had mentioned, it wasn't about being accepted into the discriminatory art world, it was about using what resources were available to create their own means of functioning and thriving as artists, carving out their own community of artists and gallerists to support each other. As is the case for many performance and installation artists, collaboration among artists and across practices (Nengudi and Hassinger were both dancing with former students of the renowned dancer/choreographer, Lestor Horton) was key to giving the work meaning, and this is a very present theme in the exhibit.
The second room featured several of the artist's nylon pantyhose sculptures. In pieces like R.S.V.P. Reverie 'Scribe' , R.S.V.P. Reverie 'D' and Swing Low, the nude nylon materials are stretched tautly across the walls, knotted and turned inside out in an uncanny resemblance of skin itself. During the performance, the work, Untitled (R.S.V.P.) was the activated sculpture, it's weighted pockets of sand placed precariously on the floor.
Also featured is Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, several photographs and a video of the performance which took place under a freeway overpass in downtown LA. The piece, which was funded by CETA, included artists, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Franklin Parker, Houston Conwill, and Ulysses Jenkins, among others, in an improvisational musical and dance performance, based around an encounter with male and female spiritual energies.
I hope you enjoyed this tour of the exhibition. You can read more about what else I got up to in LA, namely, seeing the Adler Guerrier: Conitions and Forms for blck Longevity exhibit at CAAM. Check out the accompanying VLOG, the first of many videos where I will take you into current exhibits and speak briefly about the experience. Subscribe to the Black Visual Impulse youtube channel for more. Until next time!