In 1980, Ana Mendieta organized an exhibition called Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States at the all-female cooperative A.I.R. Gallery in SoHo. Featuring works by brilliant women artists like Senga Nengudi, Beverly Buchanan, Howardena Pindell, Zarina, Judy Baca, and others, the show leveled an indictment of mainstream feminism’s failure to champion racial equity, both on behalf of women artists of color and in the world at large. “As women of the United States politicized themselves and came together in the Feminist Movement with the purpose to end the domination and exploitation by white male culture, they failed to remember us,” Mendieta wrote in the catalogue. “American Feminism as it stands is basically a white middle class movement.” Beyond the radical framework it provides, it’s instructive to think of Nengudi’s work in the context of these practices that embraced object-based abstraction and critical politics hand in hand. Nengudi’s sculptures in particular seem to offer a critique of the fetishization of the live, performing body—particularly one marked female and black. With her suggestive objects she finds a compelling solution to the problem of bridging performance and documentation. The torqued, bulged, and bunched stockings mimic the properties of the live body at the same time that they index the performative process of their making. My friend and collaborator Alexandra has described performance as a producer not of “liveness” but of instability; in this instability lies a chance to recalibrate our relationship to the world of objects and the way we produce knowledge from it. Nengudi’s sculptures are deliberately obstinate, but thinking through them in performative terms (without veering too close to neo-animistic thinking) allows us to engage with them much more critically and usefully.

Senga Nengudi, Blue Haze, 2013

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,,,”