Senga Nengudi, Studio Performance with R.S.V.P.,(1976)

In Nengudi’s Studio Performance with R.S.V.P., the art object and exhibition space become extensions of the performers very flesh. Dressed all in black so that the boundary of her body and the rest of the piece are indistinct, Nengudi pulls ritualistically at the attenuated leg of a pair of pantyhose braced with weights and attached to the gallery wall.  While the “sculpture” is itself a kind of flesh, Nengudi merges with it’s objecthood, as if enacting Merleau-Ponty’s observations about the reciprocal relation of the body to the world:

“The openness through flesh: the two leaves of my body and the leaves of the visible world… It is between these intercalated leaves that there is visibility… all this means: the world, the flesh not as fact or sum of facts, but as a locus of an inscription of truth,,,”


Senga Nengudi is an artist that is interested in dance, the mechanics of the body and the nature of spirit. She combines abstract sculptures often made using everyday materials and found objects such as tights and combines these with choreographed performances. The work and performances often question ideas of gender norms and the sculptures made from tights filled with sand resemble testicles or sagging breasts.

The images above are from Nengudi’s early work made in the late 70s and early 90s, while her themes and interest remain the same, the materials and approaches she uses evolve. Below are two examples of her more recent installations, This Way and Warp Trance

Nengudi choose to work under different names or personas depending on the medium she is using. As a poet she is Lily Bea Moor, as a painter she is Harriet Chin and as a Photographer she is Propecia Leigh. The choice to work under different names is an exploration into the fact that many of us will form preconceived ideas of what an artist’s work should look like relating to their ethnicity which can be indicated by their name. ‘An ethnic name attached to an artwork assumes us into an unconscious shorthand way of understanding the style of subject matter with expectations of what the style and subject matter should be’. Nengudi was born Sue Irons.

If you ask someone to name five artists, they will likely name prominent male artists, but how many people can list five women artists? Throughout March’s Women’s History Month, we will be joining institutions around the world to answer this very question posed by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NWMA). Together we hope to draw attention to the gender imbalance in the art world, inspire conversation and awareness, and hopefully add a few more women’s names to everyone’s lists.

At the forefront of the African-American avant-garde in Los Angeles and New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Senga Nengudi was first recognized for her anthropomorphic nylon mesh sculptures, such as Inside/Outside. The work conjures the image of a traditional African headdress, telling of Nengudi’s interest in African philosophy and ritual. The artist’s background as a dancer and choreographer informs her practice, and she has often utilized works such as Inside/Outside in her own performances, testing the limit of her constructions by wearing and stretching the nylons to the brink of bursting.

Can you name #5WomenArtists?

Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art opens tonight at 6PM at the Walker Art Center! The opening reception will feature a series of performances by artists featured in the exhibition including Terry Adkin’s The Last Trumpet, Senga Nengudi's Untitled (RSVP), Pope.L's Costume Made of Nothing, and Jacolby Satterwhite's Orifice. Admission is free!

Learn more about the exhibition and tonights performance’s on the Walker’s website here.