She Twists, Knots and Pulls to Near Breaking What Other Women Fear Will Get Snagged and Run
In the early 1970s, Senga Nengudi was among a small vanguard of African American artists who were exploring forms of conceptual art and performance art as part of their search for an African American aesthetic. These artists looked at black musicians to understand how they were using European instruments as tools to develop new and creative sounds from standard songs that evolved, over time, into a specific African American sound; they wanted that to happen with their art.
Nengudi’s previous experience in Japan and her exposure to new ways of looking at tradition prompted her to search for traditions within her own cultural experiences when she returned to the U.S. In the 1970s she found a pliable medium of expression in a new American commodity that rapidly became commonplace, mesh (panty hose), which she would stretch, tie, and fill with other materials such as sand. In more recent years, Nengudi has expanded her use of found objects and mixed media to include performance and group participation.
Senga Nengudi was born Sue Irons in Chicago in 1943. Like millions of African Americans during the Great Migration, her grandparents had moved north from Missouri in search of a better life during the 1920s.1 Nengudi’s father died when she was three years old. Intent on her daughter receiving a good education, her mother, Elois, enrolled her in Catholic school and worked hard to pay tuition.
Sometime during the late 1940s, after occasional visits with relatives who lived in Berkeley, Elois decided that California would be a better place to raise Sue. The two moved first to Pasadena but later settled in Los Angeles where Elois enrolled her daughter in the city’s diversely populated public schools. Nengudi’s classmates included Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, Latino as well as African American and a few white children.
In central LA the two best high schools at the time were Dorsey and LA High. Nengudi graduated from Dorsey High School in 1961. Other Dorsey students during this period were Marilyn MaCoo (later with the Fifth Dimension) and Robert Kardashian (later, lawyer for O.J. Simpson) who was a class president. She recalls Dorsey's "intense" social pressure, including sororities and African American male frat brothers who wore suits and carried attaché cases, but she was drawn to Dorsey's strong arts program.
Nengudi's artistic ability and sense of the dramatic was inherited from her mother who had a sense of “visualization” that she expressed through interior decoration. Elois would periodically repaint all the rooms in their home and rearrange the furniture. These rearrangements were the precursors to Nengudi’s installations.
Nengudi attended California State University at Los Angeles where she studied visual art and dance. Upon graduation in 1966 she signed up for a special graduate program that offered students the opportunity to travel abroad.2 She decided that it would be important for her to select a country that would give her a cultural experience that would be outside her comfort zone — possibly Norway, Taiwan or Japan.
In doing her research she discovered Gutai, an experimental artist collective in Japan that focused on large-scale multimedia environments, performances, and theatrical events. Among other things, the Gutai manifesto expresses a fascination with the beauty that arises when things become damaged or decayed. The discovery of the avant garde Gutai clinched Nengudi’s decision about where she would study. This group provided a genuine place of exploration similar to those early groups in Europe who experimented with Dada, Surrealism, etc.
Interestingly, Japan was one of the few countries among the program’s list of countries that did not require knowledge of the language. However, Nengudi did take language classes, along with classes in culture, politics and daily practices. Unfortunately, for all her early preparation, Nengudi did not find the Gutai but she did take lessons in traditional dance and woodblock printmaking. She says that the Eastern point of view and aesthetic was "extremely different and had a lasting effect on me."
Nengudi lived in Tokyo in a traditional style, Japanese house. The owner was a filmmaker. He lived in the house with his wife who suffered with MS, his mother, a photographer who was a renter, and Nengudi.
She had the unconventional, international experience that she envisioned because living in Japan was a complex experience. The Japanese still had wounds from WWII. The US was involved in the Viet Nam War and the Japanese position on the war ran counter to ours. (Japan had consistently encouraged a negotiated settlement of the war at the earliest possible date.) Being an independent, single, young woman was another issue that she had to manage in a country that viewed gender roles in traditional ways. She had to learn gender-related and other social rituals. Nengudi recalls American students from the east coast tended to adjust to the rituals better than the California students — perhaps because of the Californians’ laid back, individualistic, laissez faire attitudes.
Everything was a ritual! For example, her host family had one wooden tub in which everyone bathed. The protocol of the bath was that one washed before getting into the tub and that the man of the house went first, followed by each member of the immediate family in their proper order. Nengudi was the last to bathe. Once Nengudi committed herself to adapt the country’s pervasive rituals, she observed how things remained constant. There was a ritual for answering the telephone, a ritual for addressing people.
Ritual in the arts followed a pattern as well. There was the traditional woodblock printmaking and silk screen prints that remained constant. Then there was the Guati art association that focused on experimentation. This new approach to art-making was liberating and leaned towards “happenings” that were popular in the United States. Such breaking with tradition interested Nengudi —the freedom from frames, the ability to express one’s self without compromise and beyond the confines of the museum or gallery. The artist was free to create anywhere. The influence of ritual would stay with Nengudi and become the foundation for her own art work.
Returning to Los Angles, Nengudi began to analyze and explore artistic and cultural connections between her experience in Japan to her African American experiences and her explorations into the history of African art. With this openness to ritual, she returned to California State University to work on her MA.
Nengudi moved to Pasadena where there was a strong African American art presence and got a job as a social worker working with unwed teen mothers. That job lasted for one year when she got a position as an assistant art teacher at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1969. This position led to a second teaching position at the Watts Towers Art Center — both arts institutions were very progressive and experimental art spaces.
She earned her MA 1971, moved to New York where she got a small apartment at 243 East 118th Street, in Spanish Harlem and found a job as an art teacher at the Children’s Art Carnival under Betty Blayton-Taylor. In time she became involved with a community of African American artists who were exploring the boundaries of African American and African art. That is to say, these artists such as COBRA (in Chicago) were looking at rhythmic patterns, context, color intensity, and story-telling that reflected both an African American and an African connection. There were scholars who were looking, particularly in the south, for remnants of African culture that could be observed in the music, in religious dance or in folk art.
In 1972 or 1973 the National Conference of Artists held its annual conference in New York City and Nengudi’s cousin, artist Eileen Abdulrashid, called and asked if she might stay with her during the conference. Abdulrashid arrived at Nengudi’s door with artists David Hammons, Betye Saar, Dan Concholar, and several other people all needing a place to stay. It was a tight squeeze, so much so that Saar found somewhere else to stay but, she says, "David, Dan, Eileen and a few other artists crashed at my pad" for the duration of the conference.
Nengudi and Hammons had met previously in Los Angeles. David had a studio in a former dance hall on Slauson Avenue and artists would regularly gather there. The artists had set up Studio Z (Z for Zoo) to exhibit their work. Nengudi’s relation with Hammons had been casual. She was shy and did not socialize with most of the artists.
Following the visit in Harlem, the friendship of Nengudi and Hammons solidified and they decided that whenever one or the other were in New York or LA and needed a place to stay, their doors would always be open.
In 1974 Nengudi moved back to Los Angeles. She was pregnant with her first child and was inspired by her pregnancy to view her art work in terms of body transitions and body movement – the stretching adomen, breasts swelling, filling with milk and sagging. These physical changes to the female body required her to experiment with materials that lent themselves to these sensations and body forms. To this end, Nengudi found such material as nylon mesh and sand as material that were flexible and offered a tactile quality that reflected human skin, muscle and movement.
Also in 1974, she took the name N'Senga (later shortened to Senga). She was named by a friend from Zaire (now Republic of the Congo).
Around that time Brockman Gallery3, LA’s first sustained gallery that specialized in African American art, received a grant from CETA4. Susanne Jackson5 was one of the administrators of the CETA program. Nengudi was among the artists selected for the program. In keeping with CETA’s requirements, Nengudi had to create a public art installation. To celebrate the unveiling of the installation, she created Ceremony for Freeway Fets and asked performance and installation artists Maren Hassinger and David Hammons to partipate in it.
Nengudi and Hassinger knew of one another’s work but they had never met. Nengudi was impressed with Hassinger because she was the only African American artist who had exhibited at the Arco Center for the Visual Arts, a showcase for prominent area artists such as Edward Ruscha. Hassinger had shown her wire sculpture installation, Dangerous Grid there.
In the 1970s a number of African American artists were becoming interested in Sun Ra. This avant garde musician had a “willingness to play almost anywhere, from jazz clubs to Egyptian pyramids, from Lower East Side dives with huge 50-member bands, to Coney Island with John Cage.” 6 Artists like Nengudi and Hammons were fascinated by how Sun Ra combined spirituality, cosmology, history and politics and opened the door of creativity to bring all that into his music. Nengudi was particularly interested in how Sun Ra’s career argued persuasively against limitations and boundaries.
Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, was Nengudi’s first major performance work. The collaborative work took place under a freeway overpass on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Nengudi used nylon mesh to design the costumes, masks and headdresses for all of the performers except Hammons who made his own costume.
Never having worn a mask before, Nengudi found the experience liberating. It allowed her to become an entirely different entity and it enabled her to more deeply understand the value of ritual. In describing the feeling of the performance she says that she felt as if she had become “an agent of something else.”
Gutai means “embodiment.” In presenting her performance work outdoors for the general public, Nengudi’s work became the “embodiment” of all that she understood and learned from Sun Ra, her experience in Japan and her understanding of African as well as Japanese ritual.
In this trailblazing example of African American performance art, Hammons and Hassinger played the roles of the male and female spirits. Nengudi performed as a spirit to heal the animosity that black men and black women were experiencing at the time (the so-called "black male/female problem") and unite the genders. The choreography and the music were completely improvised. The performance was taped.
A few years earlier, in 1974, in New York, Linda Goode Bryant had opened Just Above Midtown (JAM), a gallery that regularly featured the work of African American artists. The gallery was located in central Manhattan because Bryant wanted to "make a powerful statement," says Nengudi. "We belong here just as much as you do." The opening of a mid-town gallery presenting the work of African American and Latino artists made it possible for these artists to be seen by gallery visitors, collectors, and art critics. Artists were being seen. Their work was being sold and they were receiving reviews. JAM represented some white artists, as well.
Among the first artists to exhibit at the gallery were Nengudi, Houston Conwill, David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady, Randy Williams, and Banerjee (a South Asian American artist).
Repondez s’il vous plait, 1977, was one of two major exhibitions that Nengudi presented at JAM. The show, part of the RSVP series begun in 1975, was based on the invention of a sculptural language uniquely her own. In this series she combined her interest in movement with sculpture made from nylon mesh filled with sand, dirt, rocks, seed pods and other found objects.
Still exploring the possibilities of these materials, Nengudi began to twist, knot, and pull to near breaking, the nylon mesh shapes. Her sculptural shapes were amorphous visually and could be shaped and pulled and woven into patterns that reflect dance. The textural quality of the sculptures evoke the forms of sagging breasts and generating a sense of shedding skin and the ephemeral, mortal nature of the body; a subject seldom discussed, even today: the maturing of the female body; but specifically the African American female body.
One of the concerns Nengudi had with her work, which she expressed to Linda Bryant, was the lack of permanency in her work. Art was supposed to be permanent. Bryant told her to go with it, just let it happen. And so this small exchange between gallerist and artist led to the recognition of her work as a metaphor for the impermanence of life.
RSVP was shown first at the Pearl C. Wood Gallery in 1977 and then traveled to New York to the Just Above Midtown Gallery. The Wood Gallery was on Western Avenue in LA. Nengudi and Hassinger reunited at this show. Both artists had studied dance. The two improvised dance movements with, within, and without the extended nylon mesh sculpture. "It was a pure explorationof the limitations of the female body and psyche and the stretching beyond those personal and societal restrictions," Nengudi recalls.
In 2003, RSVP was re-installed in Senga Nengudi's solo exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery.
Her other shows during this period included From One Source Many Rivers at the Carnegie International 2004 - 2005, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
In a conversation with Naomi Beckwith, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Nengudi talked about her work, Lov U, 2012. The idea for the piece came from listening to private conversations in public spaces and noting how many conversations end with the phrase, “love you.” Nengudi believes that this phrase is not obligatory but comes from genuine feeling.
Looking inward she began to think about the people she loves and the nature of love. She gathered definitions from friends of what love meant to them. She worked with students to create a photo book and expanded the work to include people in the community by asking them to take pictures with things they love. Her friends, students and fellow community members were very pleased to have the opportunity to reflect on love and share their reflections with others.
The Luv U installation consisted of photographs of the artist’s hands in various positions common to women which were then transferred onto a video that was shown on one of the tv monitors with the music of Nancy Wilson singing “Save Your Love for Me.” On the second tv monitor was shown a series of “mating or dating rituals” such as dancing, intimate conversation, hand touching. In another area of the gallery space was the sound of a heartbeat, a drum beat all rolled into one continuous sound, and a grouping of photographs of hand-holding. Other music filtered throughout the gallery space included the sounds of Ceil Taylor, Lauren Hill and Etta James.. A book showcasing the notes, photos, statements made by all the people who had participated in the project was created by Nengudi. As with all her art, the intention is to share the experiences of the core group with the general public so that everyone becomes a participant.
In summer 2014 Senga Nengudi was the subject of two exhibitions in Dever: The Performing Body, a retrospective look at Nengudi's performance work, with new installations and pieces created for the show at the RedLine; and The Material Body, abstract sculptures from her "RSVP" series at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
The idea Nengudi's Walk a Mile in My Shoes, a work which has been on-going for the past 10 years, came from an old Japanese folktale about villagers who complained about the weight of their individual problems. The village sage told each person to write down their problems on a piece of paper and tie them to a large tree that was situated in the center of the village. Each villager was to take down the problem of another and live with it for a while with the option of returning in a month and retrieving their own problem back. Well within a month, seeing that they were uniquely able to handle their own problems, all of the villagers hurried back to the tree to retrieve their own problem.
As a response to this folk wisdom Nengudi has been mailing shoes out in all directions to people of all sorts with the instructions to the recipient to move, dance or walk a mile in the shoes they receive, document the event, send the documentation back to her, and send the shoes on to someone else.
The concept is to explore how uncomfortable it is to try and fit into another’s shoes and show that no matter how complicated or difficult our problems we are well suited to handle the twists and turns of our own lives. In addition to shoes traveling to Colorado, California, New York, Maryland and other states, one pair has already changed feet twice on the way to Denmark. An artist’s book is in process to be completed upon receipt of 100 pieces of documentation.
These days Nengudi lives in Colorado with her husband Ellioutt Fittz, her husband of 40 years. Over the years he has supported Nengudi, watching their children when they were small so that she could travel out of town to install and present her art work. Even now that their children are grown and they are grandparents, he still makes it possible for her to experiment and create new works that generate concepts that interest her.
She continues to be committed to art education and community projects because she feels that "creative thinking and making can be mind-expanding and life-changing on many levels." For example, she says that art promotes mental flexibility and increases confidence.
Senga Nengudi has received numerous awards including the Anonymous was a Woman Award and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in 2005. The Women’s Caucus for Art named her recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2010. She is represented by the Thomas Erben Gallery in New York City.
Gylbert Garvin Coker, Ph.D., is an art historian who lives in Thomasville, GA.
1. Elois Irons was born in 1921. She and her family moved to Chicago from Missouri sometime after Elois' birth.
2. Nengudi was not officially a graduate student but the rules were relaxed at the time and she was able to participate in the program.
3. Artists like Nengudi often worked at a gallery opened by Greg Pitt. Pitt's father was a minister and the gallery was on property next to Rev. Pitts church. The gallery was open to experimental work which could not be shown in more traditional gallery settings.
4. CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) was a program similar to the WPA of the 1930s that provided work for artists during the 1970s. There was a large amount of funding provided to state and federal ats organizatons that was available for community and minority art programs.
5. Suzanne Jackson opened Gallery 32, the first art gallery owned and run by an African American woman with a focus on African American contemporary art. When its doors closed, she went to work for the Brockman Gallery.
6. New York Times obituary of Sun Ra by Peter Watrous, May 31, 1993.