by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
In September 2022, the Nasher Sculpture Centre announced Senga Nengudi to be the next recipient of their annual award that recognises living artists whose contributions to sculpture has redefined the medium’s potentiality. The Nasher Prize was established in 2015, with the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo being its first laureate the following year, and has since maintained a critical sensitivity that strikes a balance between formal and political aesthetic concerns. With her artworks influencing African American artists for over four decades, many would consider such an accolade for Nengudi long overdue, but even in the United States her poignant practice would only enter a wider discourse in the early 2000s. This temporal dissonance is relevant as it reveals a pronounced disaffection in the dominant cultural narrative for the visual art of marginalised communities.
According to Thomas Erben, whose gallery has represented Nengudi since 1996, audiences may often not have the appropriate tools to gauge the relevance of such a revolutionary art practice. Being an African American artist in the 70s, she would have been expected to speak for her community in a more direct manner than what her formally avant-garde practice would have permitted and as a female artist her practice predated an acceptance of intersectionality in the dominant feminist art discourse.
“Her work has very many layers. You can approach Senga Nengudi’s work from a feminist perspective, through her use of the pantyhose material. Through the material there is a representation of the female body. Another layer is that the material comes in different shades of brown. Again, there comes ethnicity in a dual plane, her own experience becoming pregnant and then losing some of the tight bodily shapes. So, the material she used at the time and for which she is mostly known, this nylon mesh material, has great follicle potential on various levels. You know, for art which is really avant-garde, the general audience and the art historian has to, over time, understand what the visual artist did. If an artist’s work has multiple layers and is very complex, there is often not yet, at its point of creation, a broader understanding immediately available. You don’t have the words to describe the various aspects to understand what exactly the work does,” he says.
In the 1970s Nengudi and her longtime collaborator Maren Hassinger were part of Studio Z, a loose collective of artists that would improvise in David Hammon’s studio and in public spaces in Los Angeles. A Ceremony for Freeway Fets, an attempt to simulate an African village on a Los Angeles freeway, incorporating Nengudi’s pantyhose sculptures, a performance by Hassinger, and the participation of multiple instrumentalists and other performers, was a notable work from this association. Born Sue Irons, an afterimage of Africa was central to Nengudi’s personal imagining of self, as evidenced from her taken name which was given to her by a lover from Zaire, ‘Senga’ meaning to listen or to hear and ‘Nengudi’ referencing an authoritative traditional healer in Duala.
Her most recognisable series of artworks, titled Répondez S’Il Vous Plait but more popularly known as ‘the Pantyhose pieces,’ transmutes the movement of her body into ephemeral sculptural forms through several mounted pantyhose. “These sculptures she was creating,” says Erben, “they were not static objects. She did dance performances with these objects. So, in that way she formally extended the possibility of what a sculpture can be: it’s not only something you put on a pedestal, it’s not only something that is very durable and made of stable materials that can last for hundreds of years. It is also something that you can interact with in the form of dance.” A retrospective of these sculptures at Thomas Erben Gallery in 2003 brought her to the limelight and raised questions about her obscurity up until that point. Her practice subsequently caught the eye of Laura Hoptman from the Carnegie Museum of Art, and her artworks found their way into the 54th Carnegie International in 2007. International recognition would progressively follow and in 2017 she was invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
Erben nostalgically reminisces about Nengudi’s relationship with his gallery. “I opened a gallery in 1996 but before that I started to do exhibitions in my own private space, in my apartment. So, I showed in 1993 the artist Loraine O’ Brady, another African American artist who had become prominent in the meantime. She is a little older than Senga and occupies a different space in the chronology of how African American art evolved in the United States. So, I exhibited Loraine O’Brady in 1993 in my apartment, and then Loraine one day came to me and said–Thomas, there is one artist whose work I have always admired, and this is Senga Nengudi. The way she spoke to me about that artist, I felt instinctively that I have to go and meet this artist. So, I started the correspondence with her and then I visited her at Colorado Springs in 1995 and from then onwards I have worked together with her. That also led to me deciding to inaugurate my gallery with an installation by Senga Nengudi. She was actually a part of the gallery at its very inception.”
Senga Nengudi will receive the Nasher Prize on April 1, 2023.