Art + Practice
As far as symbolism is concerned, certain materials arrive ready-made, freighted with meaning. The protean sculptor/dancer Senga Nengudi, a major influence on Los Angeles’s African American art scene of the ’70s and ’80s, employs a material whose sole function is to be in contact with the female body. In her R.S.V.P. works, she uses pantyhose as a symbol of the female persona: capacious, resilient, able to stretch and come back into shape. The flesh-tone colors of the material draw out such difficult and fundamental aspects of identity as race, gender, sexuality, and the physical characteristics of the female body. By collecting pantyhose donated by friends and bought from thrift shops, Nengudi accesses what she calls the “residual energy of what it means for a woman to wear these garments.” The R.S.V.P. works had their origins in Nengudi’s pregnancy, as she observed changes in her body’s shape, balance, and movement and related them to the shared experience of womanhood.
Nengudi describes her work as “stationary performance pieces.” Pairs of malleable pantyhose act as both a conceptual and physical vector for her ideas; her constructions are simultaneously sculpture and props for a dancer. Nengudi performs a number of actions on the material—tying, knotting, twisting it together, stretching it between nails on the wall. When these objects are not being used to define movement, they hang in ways that suggest biomorphic forms, skins, and body parts. She further transforms the fabric by filling it with sand at its base or between knots. The sand swells, distends, and activates the hose, determining the position of one point in space relative to another. When a dancer interacts with the works, the sand defines the sphere of motion as well as the scope of the space occupied by the object. The elasticity of the nylon mesh relates to the elasticity of the human body, and the sculpture becomes a dance partner. Videos and photo-documentation reveal how the sculptures change as the dancers occupy them—bending, reaching, becoming entangled; stretching the pantyhose further and moving the sand pockets around.
Nengudi’s pendulous sculptures have aspects that are both masculine and feminine; her collaborative performances with artists of both sexes suggest a focus on social situations that equally affect men and women. Her work shows the influence of African, Asian, and Native American aesthetics, while Western art forms such as Arte Povera, with its elevation of throwaway materials, certainly enter the mix. Nengudi’s three-part installation, A.C.Q. (I) (2016–17) consists of junked refrigerator and air conditioner parts, a fan, nylon pantyhose, and sand. This kinetic multi-sensory work evokes the sensations essential to life—breath, subtle motion, and small changes over time.
“Head Back & High: Performance Objects 1976–2017” included early and recent performance pieces and sculpture. Featured videos and photo- documentation underscored the artistic collaborations that have typified Nengudi’s practice from its beginning. The list of her collaborators over the past 40 years, which reads like a Who’s Who of the African American art scene in Los Angeles, includes Maren Hassinger and David Hammons among many others.