‘I Believe Deeply that the Best Kind of Art is Public’: An Interview with Senga Nengudi

The legendary sculptor and performance artist talks liquid sculpture, the politics of dance and the liberating qualities of nylon hosiery.

As a member of a radical generation of Los Angeles-based artists who emerged during the turbulent Civil Rights Era (1954–68), Senga Nengudi’s practice has expanded the threshold between sculpture and performance art. At a time when traditional media had given way to the dematerialization of the art object, Nengudi set about inventing her own artistic language with little more than a pair of nylon stockings. In her early experiments, skin-like materials filled rooms and spaces, having been stretched and pulled, tied and knotted, twisted and suspended from walls and ceilings. Compelled by the kinaesthesia of the body, she began experimenting with various forms of movement and collaborating with fellow artists, such as David Hammons and Maren Hassinger. In these performances, the artist’s anthropomorphic forms became extensions of live bodies, transforming sculptural materials and found objects into ritualistic environments of political and civic activation. In her best-known series, ‘R.S.V.P.’ (1977/2003), the splayed, limb-like, nylon forms speak not only to the question of women’s delimited roles in contemporary culture, but also to the physical reality of the artist’s changing pregnant body. Drawing on references as seemingly varied and unorthodox as Japan’s Gutai Art Association and traditional West-African masquerade, Nengudi’s expansive practice allows the material, as well as the viewer, to embody another dimension. In social spaces where blackness is so often circumscribed through mental constructs, Nengudi’s works continue to generate spaces of memory and meditation, spaces in which to reflect on the aesthetics of African diaspora and its futures.

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