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 beneath a Los Angeles freeway. Typically frequented by the houseless, the city’s freeway underpasses are also normally filled with urban detritus. On that day, however, for a Nengudi-organized performance known as Ceremony for Freeway Fets, it also played host to clarinetists, drummers, flautists, dancers, and more. Hassinger, who had committed to take part on the day of the event, twirled repeatedly as traffic sped by; Nengudi’s sculptures made of pantyhose were strewn around a set of pylons. A vacant space that typically had a static feel was briefly animated and filled with joy.
Ceremony for Freeway Fets was only performed once, and like many works by Nengudi, it no longer exists. (Photographs documenting the performance act mainly as showcases for the outfits donned by its participants. In some cases, this puffy, distressed garb resembles the plastic bags that lined the freeway.) Nengudi once described the work as an attempt to approximate “an African village.” That this makeshift community’s vibrancy is still palpable from photographs alone is a testament to Nengudi and her collaborators’ ability to mine radiant energy from even the most mundane things.
Nengudi’s work in all its indefinable glory will this week become the subject of a survey at the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition. Having previously appeared at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Lenbachhaus in Munich, and the Denver Art Museum in Colorado (the state that Nengudi has called home since 1989), the show, titled “Topologies,” considers her as an essential figure within the history of performance art. While the exhibition includes a number of sculptures, including ones from her famed “R.S.V.P.” series that make use of pantyhose and sand, her performances are often only hinted at through documentation. Nevertheless, this is often enough to conjure the electric presence that animates Nengudi’s art.
In fact, Nengudi has written that she often did not want to create objects that existed forever. “I have fought the joy of creating impermanent objects most of my life,” she wrote in a 1995 artist statement. “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is the making of objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all. This has never been a priority for me. My purpose is to create an experience that will vibrate with the connecting thread.”
Bodies are present, even when people are absent, in Nengudi’s art.
In the early 1970s, during a short period where she was based in New York, Nengudi created what she called “fabric spirits.” Composed of little more than fabric strung up with cord, these sculptures resembled arcing bodies or flayed skins, and were hung from fire escapes, fences, and even a staircase near her East Harlem apartment. In a statement from the era, Nengudi described them as containing “the inner souls or spirits of people I have seen on the city streets; particularly in Harlem.”
These sculptures, like many others by Nengudi, conjure humans whose bodies are no longer there—a theme that would be picked up a few years later in her “R.S.V.P.” series, which is perhaps her most well-known body of work. In these works, Nengudi relies on pantyhose purchased at thrift shops, stuffing it in places with sand and elongating its nylon form by knotting it, pinning it, and stretching it across corners, walls, and floors. The “R.S.V.P.” works, with their fleshy look, resemble limbs and genitalia, and though many have ascribed to them feminine qualities, some have also seen in them male attributes, too.
According to Linda Goode Bryant, who exhibited these works at her famed New York gallery Just Above Midtown during the ’70s, men reacted strongly to them. “It was a common reaction among male visitors to the gallery to grasp or subconsciously cover parts of their body with their hands when they saw that long, straight pins had been stuck into some of these sacks,” Bryant wrote in an essay published in the “Topologies” catalogue.
The “R.S.V.P.” works are allusive, elusive, and often difficult to parse. Film scholar Rizvana Bradley has suggested that these works are not intended to have a gender, saying that the sand in them “mimics the weight of the human body and also marks its uncanny disfigurement.” When Nengudi first started making them in 1975, not long after giving birth to a child, she had in mind Black wet-nurses who repeatedly care for children. “The body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape,” she wrote in 1977.
Today, the most famous images of her “R.S.V.P.” works are the ones of performers—many of them Black women—twining their bodies through their elongated strips of nylon. In one 1976 performance intended purely for the camera, Nengudi pulled her skirt over her head and gently tugged at an “R.S.V.P.” sculpture. “I wanted to be a hidden image,” she wrote. And in another 1977 performance that now exists only in photos, Maren Hassinger contorts her body so that her arms and legs are lightly bound by Nengudi’s art. In one image, Hassinger puts her body in a bridge-like position, so that her back is supported by nylon. Because of the way the photograph, it’s unclear where she begins and the sculpture ends.
Influences from Africa, avant-garde art, and more merge in Nengudi’s work.
Nengudi’s oeuvre has always been a hybrid one. Born in 1943 in Chicago as Sue Irons, she was raised in California and later attended what is now California State University, Los Angeles, where she studied art and dance. In 1965, while still a student, Irons did an internship in the art and dance education department of the Pasadena Art Museum, which at that time was a destination for its presentations of cutting-edge art. She developed a fascination with the work of Paul Klee, who made use of inscrutable symbols that appear to contain their own hidden language.
Meanwhile, while in the library at school, she came across a book on the Japanese avant-garde and developed a love of Gutai, a postwar movement that sought to collapse all divisions between art and life by relying on readily available materials, including dirt, cloth, and light tubes. “What spoke to Nengudi from the images she saw was the ephemeral and quotidian nature of the employed materials, as well as the visible role granted to play and improvisation,” Lenbachhaus curator Stephanie Weber has written. Inspired by Gutai, she briefly moved to Japan on a fellowship and began studying forms of Japanese theater like Noh and Kabuki.
When she returned to California in 1967, she also became involved with the scene around the Watts Tower, in a predominantly Black Los Angeles neighborhood that had been transformed by protests spurred by police brutality two years earlier. She fell in with a scene centered around the Black-owned Brockman Gallery and David Hammons’s studio, and in the ’70s, she furthered an interest in African art that was also being explored by many of her colleagues at the time. In 1974, a boyfriend from Zaire rechristened her Senga Nengudi—“Senga” means “listen” or “hear” in Duala, and “Nengudi” translates to “a woman who comes to power as a traditional healer,” the artist explained in a 2013 oral history.
Her later performances evinced an interest in African art. For the 1978/79 performance Masked Taping, she attached pieces of tape to her body and moved about, to explore “elements of my African heritage of mask making, dance, rites and rituals,” the artist wrote. Meanwhile, art historian Kellie Jones has connected Ceremony for Freeway Fets to traditions like Gèlèdé, a Nigerian masquerade meant as a celebration of female power.
Commonplace materials are given new life in Nengudi’s art.
Nengudi’s first mature artworks were a series known as “Water Compositions,” for which she filled plastic sacs with water tinged rich shades of purple, green, and blue by food coloring. These works stood in marked contrast to what was expected of Black artists at the time. “No one would even speak to her because we were all doing political art,” Hammons told Jones in her 2017 book South of Pico. “She couldn’t relate.” The “Water Compositions” later appeared at the Musée Rath in Geneva, in a 1971 show called “8 artistes afro-américains,” which was met with protests targeting the exhibition because it wasn’t political enough. (That same year, she stopped producing the “Water Compositions,” fearing that they would be connected to the exploding market for waterbeds.)
In spite of the initial pushback Nengudi received for her art, she continued making work in that vein throughout her career, relying on “low” materials and breathing new life into them through her sculpture. Made in the mode of Gutai figures like Kazuo Shiraga, who once fashioned a circle out of mud and called it art, or Atsuko Tanaka, who formed a dress out of lighting tubes, Nengudi gave this style a new meaning by tethering her materials to urban spaces around her.
It’s a sensibility best glimpsed in Nengudi’s 1988 installation Bulemia, whose untranslatable title was given by artist and Yoruba priest Charles Abramson. The room-size work was filled with newspapers—they covered its walls and lay crushed in balls on the floor; a now-lost audio component accompanied it. The installation’s title—and to some degree the work itself—did not mean much, but for Nengudi, the piece had great significance. She once described it as “a great library of life where one enters to freely collect information.”