Senga Nengudi, a key figure in the avant-garde scenes of the 1960s and 1970s and who is known for her radical experiments in sculpture using non-traditional materials, has been a pioneering artist in the US for over fifty years. This recently opened solo exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute is the first institutional presentation of her work outside the United States, bringing together a concise yet comprehensive overview of her career from the 1960s to the present day.
The exhibition begins with a selection of photographs that document early performances in which Nengudi merged her sculptural practice with the human body. In Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978) she recruited fellow artists David Hammons and Maren Hassinger to act as spirits in a ceremony to ‘christen’ a public sculpture made for a Los Angeles freeway underpass. The performance included the creation of many different small objects using what would become Nengudi’s signature material: nylon tights. As in Ceremony for Freeway Fets, much of Nengudi’s work references rituals and imagery of different cultures, drawing across Japanese aesthetics, traditional forms from African cultures, Western Modernism and Native American social practices.
Some of the earliest works included in the show are Nengudi’s Water Compositions, originally made in the 1960s but now recreated and on display at the Henry Moore Institute for the first time in forty years. A series of clear heat-sealed vinyl vessels filled with brightly coloured liquid are rested on plinths and on the gallery floor. They have a bodily presence, allowing the liquid to settle and shape the objects into compelling abstract forms. Like much of Nengudi’s sculpture, the Water Compositions were originally made to be touched and interacted with by her audience, and there is still something in these works that calls out and invites direct contact – although now no longer permissible due to the fragility of the materials involved. While this is understandable and in keeping with expected codes of behaviour within the walls of the contemporary gallery or museum, we must ask what is lost when a crucial aspect of how the artist intended these works to be understood is removed. Nengudi has spoken of wanting viewers to have ‘an experience with her, not separately’.
The final gallery brings together a small selection of the work for which Nengudi is perhaps best known: her R.S.V.P sculptures which began in 1977 and continue to this day, composed of nylon tights in an array of flesh-coloured tones that have been stretched and twisted to their limits. It is hard not to read these works as metaphors of human experience, particularly the physical and social experiences that affect the bodies of women. Like bodies, the nylon fabric can be repeatedly stretched and pushed to extreme limits before the material finally refuses to return to its original form. In addition, for Nengudi there was another appeal; she was able to carry an entire exhibition in her handbag. She has said: ‘I wanted to pay homage to the fact that as women, our lives can often be found in our purse.’
Nengudi’s work has continued to feed off and work against traditional mainstream modes of artistic practice. Despite being criticised in the past for not tackling directly subjects of race and gender in her work, she has redefined how these subjects can be referenced and discussed in sculpture. Perhaps because of this, the work presented in this exhibition continues to feel relevant to contemporary thinking around identity and bodily experience. It is exciting to see this timely reappraisal of such an important artist and groundbreaking artist brought to audiences in Leeds, and an accompanying special edition of the Henry Moore Institute’s Essays on Sculpture series offers further critical exploration of Nengudi’s work.
Senga Nengudi, Henry Moore Institute, 21 September 2018 – 17 February 2019.
Rachel Graves is a curator and writer based in South Yorkshire.