The first major institutional exhibition of the sculptor and performance-based artist Senga Nengudi outside the United States also presents a rare opportunity to see work by an individual senior African American artist in Britain. The show, at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds,1 follows a spate of group exhibitions involving Nengudi held mainly in American museums, which over the past eight years or so have sought to acknowledge more widely the significance of her influential practice. In 2014 the artist had two retrospectives in Denver, where she lives: Senga Nengudi: The Material Body at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Senga Nengudi: The Performing Body at RedLine Contemporary Art Center. In 2017 Nengudi was also one of sixty African American artists included in Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern, London.
The roughly dozen works included in this exhibition represent a relatively small portion of a prolific career that spans four decades, from the 1960s to the present. Nevertheless, the selection does reflect the scope, originality and longevity of Nengudi’s practice. A series of black-and-white photographs documenting Nengudi’s signature sculpture-come-performance works from the late 1970s aptly open the show FIG. 1. The images depict the artist performing a series of carefully orchestrated floor-based physical manoeuvres while harnessed to a web-like network of women’s tights splayed and tacked across a white wall. Nengudi attributes the genesis of these important works to the physical exertions experienced in motherhood, when the body is pushed and pulled to its limits.
Untitled (R.S.V.P.) FIG. 2 and R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘D’ (2014) reprise elements of these early sculptures. In the former, five pairs of tights in different shades create a geometric composition. Each pair is individually tacked to the wall, with the legs stretched out taut to the floor. Laden with compacted sand, the bulbous shaped feet are stacked on top of each other. In R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘D’, rather than extending directly from wall to floor, two pairs of tights are stretched across the wall, creating a four-legged insect-like form, at one end of which a leg from another pair of tights drops down the wall onto the floor. The subtle interplay between material and form delicately entertains a variety of possible readings pertaining to space and gravity, the gendered body and genitalia.
Nuki Nuki: Across 118th Street FIG. 3 contrasts with Nengudi’s taut nylon sculptures in that it appears in a state of disintegration. Suspended across two walls in the corner of the gallery, this hammock-like structure of tights wilts under its own weight. Attached to the nylon are single slats from a venetian blind, which dangle perilously or lay dispersed on the floor below, appearing to have broken from the sagging structure.
For her sculptural works Nengudi transforms everyday materials. While revelatory, this approach accentuates relationships between the figurative and abstract, the fragment and the whole. In her photographic portraits Nengudi also explores representation and identity transformation through materials and form. However, as Nengudi’s sculptural practice flits between abstraction and figuration, her photographic portraits have a dual role, functioning as both documents and performative statements. As with Performance with 'Inside/ Outside' FIG. 4 distinctions between the two are not always explicit. ‘Performance’, as many of these works are titled, alludes to an event that exists within or beyond the mise en scène. Figures often appear as ungendered mystical subjects that never meet our gaze. Instead, faces and bodies are enveloped by masks and head coverings, reminiscent of masquerade or dance costumes. Study for ‘Mesh Mirage’ FIG. 5 depicts a faceless figure, dressed in a large poncho made from parcel paper with a straw-like necklace decoration draped around the neck. What appears as part doll, part costume on closer viewing reveals a human nose, the only visible body part, which protrudes from a balaclava-covered head. This image has an uncanny resemblance to Irving Penn’s Two Guedras, Morocco (1971), one of many studio portraits the photographer produced of veiled African tribespeople from the early 1970s. Is this pure coincidence or an act of appropriation, a critique of alterity as visualised in Western culture?
Although presented as framed photographs on the gallery wall, Rapunzel (1981) and Ceremony for Freeway Fets FIG. 6 stand in stark contrast to Nengudi’s performances within the gallery environment. They occupy abandoned and peripheral spaces that exist beyond the confines of the white cube. Rapunzel is a more dystopian than fairytale scene, depicting what appears to be a partially demolished building façade. Above the mass of debris, projecting out from a turret-like window, is an organic sculptural form that stretches down to a dark void below. Ceremony for Freeway Fets comprises a series of eleven small colour photographs depicting a collaborative performance staged underneath a freeway in Los Angeles. Made with Nengudi’s performance partner, Maren Hassinger, as well as the artists David Hammons, Kenneth Severin, Roho, Joe Ra and Franklin Parker, nylon tights and tarpaulin are transformed into elaborate head wear and costumes. The location of this performance, like the imagery, appears a world away from a conventional gallery or ceremonial site. Staged during the late 1970s, in the aftermath of the American civil rights movement when racial equality, in all its forms, remained elusive, Ceremony for Freeway Fets assumes an allegorical status. The alternative locus and mode for Black artistic expression represents a form of social and cultural autonomy.
Three Untitled Water Compositions (1969–70/2018), the oldest works in the exhibition, have been remade. Heat-sealed vinyl bags of various sizes containing luminous coloured liquid are displayed on plinths or propped up against a wall and secured with rope. Colour harbours ambiguity. Intersecting narratives about abstraction, minimalism and the Black Arts Movement inform the reading and significance of this work. Foreshadowing Nengudi’s subsequent figurative performance work, these vivid forms also represent a counterpoint to minimalist tendencies of the time, exuding as they do a corporeal weightiness.
In the new installation Sandmining FIG. 7, a large expanse of one of the gallery floors is covered with fine gravel. Small mounds decorated with pigments and metal fragments are arranged across this lunar-like surface. Three small drawings covered with pieces of translucent blue plastic – the kind used for packaging dry cleaning – flank three sides of the installation.
Nengudi quietly breaks down distinctions between disciplines, resulting in a unique perception of form, representation and identity. Accolades such as ‘trailblazer’ and ‘pioneering’ now generously bestowed on Nengudi are somewhat tempered by the fact that at seventy-five, recognition has been a long time coming. Notwithstanding this, this exhibition illustrates the innovative but also timeless qualities of Nengudi’s inimitable practice.