Senga Nengudi’s Journeys By Air, Water, and Sand

Senga Nengudi’s Journeys By Air, Water, and Sand

It should have been within the fall of 2011 that I first noticed the nice Senga Nengudi’s work. That was when the artwork historian and curator Kellie Jones unveiled her landmark exhibition “Now Dig This!: Artwork and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” at L.A.’s Hammer Museum. An intensive and enriching show, the present included items by an outstanding vary of creators, amongst them Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Suzanne Jackson, Maren Hassinger, David Hammons, Betye Saar, Alonzo Davis, and Houston Conwill—artists who helped outline a time and a spot that their East Coast contemporaries knew little, if something, about. Strolling into the present was like getting into a brand new environment, particularly for those who primarily related the twenty years that Jones was exploring with Pop artwork and minimalism and the few “stars” of these actions. The artists represented in Jones’s highly effective “different” world operated out of what I now see as a form of non secular necessity, a want to make use of their supplies—paint, wooden, wire rope, what have you ever—to speak the complexities of their interior view.

Of all the attractive and startling artwork I noticed in “Now Dig This!,” it was Senga Nengudi’s that wouldn’t let me or my creativeness go. I knew nothing about her, besides what I discovered from the present’s catalogue—that she was born Sue Ellen Irons, in Chicago in 1943, and moved to Pasadena, after which Los Angeles, as a toddler. Later, I learn that in her years at Dorsey Excessive Faculty Nengudi was topic to a type of silent segregation, with Black college students staying in a sure space at lunchtime. She skilled with the dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade at Lester Horton’s legendary dance studio in West Hollywood. (Horton had an important curiosity in Native American dance and rituals.) In 1965, as a pupil at California State College, she acquired a scholarship from the Fashionable Dance Membership of Los Angeles, and, at about the identical time, started instructing artwork on the Watts Towers Arts Middle. By a graduate program, she travelled to Japan in 1966, attracted by the concept of the Gutai Artwork Affiliation, a bunch of younger Japanese artists whose focus was on “happenings” and experimentation—breaking the body to make work that was bodily free, unbounded.

Element from “Moist Evening—Early Daybreak—Scat Chant—Pilgrim’s Music” (1996). The flight of Nengudi’s determine appears like a type of launch—of power whirling after which touchdown someplace.© Senga Nengudi / Courtesy Dia Artwork Basis; {Photograph} by Thomas Barratt

Nengudi’s artwork from the early seventies displays these experiences—and African tradition, too. In 1974, a boyfriend from Zaire suggested her on her title change. In Duala, the language of Cameroon, senga means “to pay attention or hear,” and a nengudi is a lady who involves energy as a conventional healer. The artist David Hammons, a buddy of Nengudi’s, says that she couldn’t relate to the American Black nationalism of these years, with its inherently patriarchal construction. For Nengudi, the one cause to have a construction was to play inside its parameters—after which explode them. Included in “Now Dig This!” was a bit from a sequence known as “R.S.V.P.” (1977/2003), which makes use of commonplace supplies—pantyhose, sand—to create biomorphic shapes that evoke the physique in extremis, ladies twisting and turning to slide into a fabric that principally encases them. In a press release in regards to the sequence, Nengudi wrote, “I’m working with nylon mesh as a result of it pertains to the elasticity of the human physique. From tender, tight beginnings to sagging . . . the physique can solely stand a lot push and pull till it provides means, by no means to renew its authentic form.”

Nengudi attracts on the strain between freedom and resistance, collapse and resurrection. From the start of her profession, she established her personal poetics of the physique and the way it strikes by means of the world, a poetics that’s unimpeded by racial distinctions; Nengudi takes from the cultures which have influenced her and recasts all of them in her personal picture. As I checked out Nengudi’s nylon stretching from one wall to a different, it occurred to me that her true soul sister, artistically talking, was Eva Hesse. For her 1970 work “Untitled (Rope Piece),” Hesse dipped rope into liquid latex, then hung it from the ceiling and partitions; the latex hardened, making a weblike construction that dangled from the looped tangle of rope. It’s artwork weighed down, simply as Nengudi’s pantyhose are weighed down and stretched out by all these absent, accommodating ladies. Hesse made “Untitled (Rope Piece)” as she was dying, of mind most cancers; Nengudi started her “R.S.V.P.” work after the start of her first baby.

Life and dying and the transition between them, with artwork as an expression of each continuums (as a result of in Nengudi’s world nothing ever dies; it evolves): that is simply one of many themes you’ll find in Nengudi’s delicate and memorable eponymous exhibition at Dia Beacon, by means of February, 2025. With the curator Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, Nengudi places the Dia’s impeccable, calm area on discover. Not like the fabulous John Chamberlain and Blinky Palermo showcases which can be up concurrently, Nengudi’s artwork doesn’t sit nonetheless, content material to be on show. Whereas the present isn’t a retrospective—you received’t discover the “R.S.V.P.” items right here—it does convey her now fifty-year-old philosophical perception in movement, in how audiences can transfer with, away from, or towards a piece, relying on their very own distinctive power and the power of the set up. However Nengudi is not any show-off; she’s each too humble and too confident to really feel that she has to return out “on prime.” As an alternative of treating her issues evenly—or closely—she lets them simply be; they’re as pure to her as respiratory.

The present is a type of taking place throughout 5 galleries. It has a way of play that solely provides to the sensation of intimacy. The very first thing you see is “Moist Evening—Early Daybreak—Scat Chant—Pilgrim’s Music” (1996), a multimedia work that features a collection of spray-can work on cardboard, lined in bubble wrap and dry-cleaning luggage. Bubble wrap makes one other look right here: on the middle of the room is a big carpet of the stuff; Nengudi has mentioned that it’s meant to evoke the sound of firecrackers in potentia. You might not know particularly what she is referencing right here, and that’s O.Ok., as a result of you possibly can really feel it: you might be embarking on a journey wherein artwork (these spray-can work) is at residence with impermanence (all that plastic wrapping). Within the corners of the room, Nengudi has sprinkled earth-toned pigment, combined with what appears to be like like glitter, rivulets of shade that seemingly shift and unfold with foot site visitors. On one wall, she has drawn a crimson physique—it’s the one figurative illustration within the present—that seems to be flying in a circle. When Toni Morrison wrote “Music of Solomon” (1977), she was, partly, impressed by tales she’d heard of Black enslaved folks flying again to Africa. The flight of Nengudi’s determine appears like a type of launch—of power whirling and then touchdown someplace. In our goals, maybe.

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