Senga Nengudi is an African American conceptual and performance artist. She was a central figure in Los Angeles’s African American art scene in the 1970s. Her abstract sculptural work of soft sculpture consisted of stretched and twisted textiles, which referenced the human form and evoked the elasticity of women’s bodies. Her performance art used ritual and ceremony and paved the way for the feminist politics of other artists.
Nengudi was born in Chicago but grew up in the L.A. area. Later she moved to New York City and then Colorado. She graduated from California State University at Los Angeles in 1966 and did post graduate work in Tokyo studying Japanese culture from 1966 to 1967. She obtained her M.A. in Sculpture from Cal State L.A. in 1971.
In 1970, Nengudi began showing her “Water Composition” works, which had colored water heat-sealed into clear vinyl. The half-filled bags were draped over ropes fastened to a wall, that tugged them up from the floor. Viewers were allowed to touch them. She showed her “Water Compositions” in California but not in New York since she thought that African Americans there would view these abstract works as apolitical.
When she moved to New York’s Spanish Harlem in the 1970s, she cut two-dimensional human figures out of cloth, originally intended to be used for flags, to make her unique representational art which she thought would please African Americans. She tied her silhouettes to posts, scaffolding in alleyways, and her own fire escape where they would sway in the breeze.
In 1977, Nengudi exhibited in New York her most iconic body of work the “RSVP” series made from pairs of pantyhose filled with sand, knotted and decorated with various materials. She pinned them to walls or to ceilings where they would stretch out and dangle sensually. Nengudi talked about this series: “After giving birth to my own son, I thought of black wet-nurses suckling child after child – their own as well as those of others, until their breasts rested on their knees, their energies drained.”
Nengudi is best known for her 1978 unrehearsed public performance, “Ceremony for Freeway Fets,” staged near downtown Los Angeles under an overpass of the 10 Freeway. This piece had people acting as African masqueraders, wearing her sculptures as costumes, as they danced and played musical instruments. The people performing were her fellow artists, which included African American artists: painter David Hammons and sculptor, photographer, and installation artist Maren Hassinger. Nengudi viewed this work as a ritual, a symbolic vehicle for healing divisions between black men and black women. Describing the piece’s concept and realization, Nengudi said, “Some of the forms and columns were representative of male energy, the others of female energy. . . I had grave concerns about the tenuous relationships between black men and women.”
Her 1981 photograph, “Rapunzel” recasts the European fairy tale of Rapunzel letting down her hair as a futile fantasy. She shows a woman with her face covered by a pair of nylon pantyhose leaning out of a window of a dilapidated brick building. The legs of the nylons stretch downward, ending in dark braids that graze the rubble below.
Nengudi has exhibited in dozens of group and solo shows, some of which took place in London, Munich, U.S.C.’s Fisher Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans. In addition to Freeway Fets” performed in Los Angeles in 1979, she has performed in the Studio Museum in Harlem, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Museum of Modern Art in New York, and many other galleries and museums. A retrospective of some works of hers will be given at the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP), Brazil from May into August, 2020.
She has received countless awards and grants, including the 2019 CAA Award: Distinguished Feminist Artist and the Leadership Award for Outstanding Contribution to Colorado’s Art Community. In 2017, she was the Rauschenberg Foundation Artist in Residence in Captiva, Florida, and she was an Artist in Resident at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum in 2011. In 2010, she won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus For Art. There are at least another dozen awards she has won over the years.
Her work is in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Studio Museum in Harlem.