Interviews

“Being Born Black in America Is a Political Act”: An Interview With Senga Nengudi

In advance of her first retrospective outside the US, avant-garde artist Senga Nengudi discusses her emergence onto an international stage after a long career.

Senga Nengudi, “Ceremony for Freeway Fets”, documentation of performance and installation piece, Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles (1978) (Courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York) (Photo: Quaku/Roderick Young)

At the edge of a white-walled gallery, a pillow-sized, clear package of blue liquid lies on the floor. Two technicians maneuver another bag, this one containing orange liquid and suspended from a thick rope, and settle it on top of the other. The technicians’ movements are being directed with precision by 75-year-old artist Senga Nengudi, who is working on the installation of her retrospective at Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, UK, which will be her first-ever institutional solo show outside the U.S. The sculpture is from her Untitled (Water Composition) series, originally produced in the late 1960s and recreated in this exhibition for the first time.

Boldly abstract, the Water Composition explores materiality and the principles of sculptural expression, while also subtly but powerfully alluding to some of the artist’s primary concerns — in particular, issues related to the female body, race, and physical movement. As one of the pieces that helped cement Nengudi’s significance amongst the post-minimalist movements that sprang up in the US in the late 1960s, it’s a work that feels both of its time and strikingly contemporary.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Senga Nengudi grew up in Los Angeles and emerged onto the avant garde art scenes in New York and LA in the mid-1960s. Her innovative combinations of sculpture and performance — often drawing on her dual education in art and dance — were particularly influential among African-American art circles, but her work’s wider impact on subsequent generations of artists has also recently come to be recognized internationally.

After the interaction between the two squashy bags was perfectly settled, I had the opportunity to speak with Senga Nengudi about her career, the tendency to put artists and their art in boxes, and the current political situation in the U.S.

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Senga Nengudi, Performance Piece (1978) (photo: Harmon Outlaw. Courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

Hyperallergic: You’re currently installing a new retrospective at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Can you say a bit about the works included in the show?

Senga Nengudi: The works go from the beginning of my career up until fairly recent work — 1969 to about 2006 — so it’s a nice span of my work. The curator, Laurence Sillars, was particularly interested in those pieces and series that haven’t really been seen before, and so there’s an interesting range on view.

H: It was great to see pieces by you at last year’s Venice Biennale, and in the Soul of a Nation show at Tate Modern, as well as here in Leeds. It seems that your work is being recognized internationally more than ever before. Why do you think your work feels particularly relevant at this point in time?

SN: That’s a very good question. Certainly, with the nylon pieces such as RSVP (1975-ongoing), there’s a relevance that is related to how I was originally feeling about personal and general women’s issues, and how certain things affect the female body. Those things haven’t changed, and they are issues that have perhaps been highlighted even more in recent years.

In terms of some of the other pieces, it’s interesting because there are other people who are doing sort of similar work now, but I was doing it then. So it has a new level of relevance, and people are starting to see my work in a different light.

Senga Nengudi, “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘D’” (2014) (courtesy the artist; Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

H: It seems that work by younger artists frequently contains references that relate to your practice. Those references are not always made explicit, which is a shame, but it’s interesting how your work has seeped into a broader art consciousness without always being recognized.

SN: I think that’s the way things go: it takes basically 20 years of retrospection to be able to look back and say, okay, this is what was going on. You need the perspective of a good span of time to really get a sense of the work. I think that’s true across the board, not just of my own work.

H: Your work has generally avoided overtly political references or statements, but your use of materials and forms are highly suggestive and allusive to issues of race and the female body. Do you see yourself as a political artist?

SN: It think there are layers to it. Simply by being, that’s a political statement. So, whatever comes out of me has all those elements of me in it: I’m black, I’m a woman, at this point I’m a woman of a certain age, which also has issues related to it. So simply by being, I am those things. I want the viewer to come in and bring their own experience to it too, and have that creative exercise within themselves. So the request in “répondez s’il vous plaît” is for the viewer to respond, for going back and forth and having a dialogue.

Senga Nengudi, Performance with “Inside/Outside Winter 1977” (1977) (courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York) (Photo: Ken Peterson)

H: To take that a bit further, with the RSVP series, is there a particular audience being addressed or is it more generalized?

SN: It’s generalized. It’s sort of like if you’re sitting at a bus stop and there are tons of people, and somehow there’s a person that you connect with: that’s what I’m looking for, these connections. It’s like when you go into a gallery and you see a number of things, and one thing will hit you maybe because of where you are in the moment, and it opens up your mind. I’m hoping that viewers will have that experience with my work, and that it will be personal.

H: Many of your pieces, and especially the RSVP series, have been used as sites and props for performance, either by yourself or by collaborators, as well as existing as sculptural works in their own right. Could you say a bit about the relationship between the static and performative elements of your work?

SN: I’ve had the experience in the past of looking at a piece and being transported into it. I’m thinking particularly of Australian Aboriginal art, where there’s a lot of dance to it, a pulsating energy to it. I’m hoping that my work has a similar latent energy to it, even if it’s not being activated, that there’s a sense of movement.

H: Your practice is very multifaceted, with these elements of performance, collaboration, and dance, as well as poetry, painting, and photography. Some of these elements of your work are executed through different personas; what is the significance of working under different names?

SN: Quite a while ago, I was in a bookstore looking at some cards, and I picked up a card that had a very African design, and when I flipped it over to see the information about the artist, I saw that it was a white artist. My immediate reaction was, “Oh my god, how can she do this? She’s doing an African painting and she’s not black, she’s not African.”

So I started thinking to myself, why do I feel this way? I started exploring that concept of how we put people in boxes, and how we expect something of artists according to their identity. That’s when I started using different names, like Harriet Chan: if I’m supposed to be Chinese and it looks like an African-American painting, then it messes with the viewer’s mind, because they’re thinking, well, this doesn’t look like I think it should look. I’m just playing with this idea of expanding the way people think about things.

H: I have to wonder if that’s part of the reason why your work has come to real prominence a bit later on, because maybe people didn’t quite know what to do with your practice?

SN: Very much so.

H: What’s interesting about your work is that it doesn’t just fit into boxes. The dominant discourse about feminist art, for example, often ignores the intersectionality of the individual artists who are part of that movement. Your work is particularly interesting because it crosses those borders: it talks about the female body, but it also talks about race and about sculpture as a medium, and materiality. So putting it in an exhibition about feminist art is fine, but it only really scratches the surface.

SN: I’m very much in agreement. It’s slightly lazy, too, because if you put my work in a feminist show, then you can stop the thinking right there: it doesn’t have to go much beyond that.

Senga Nengudi, “Ceremony for Freeway Fets”, documentation of performance and installation piece, Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles (1978) (Courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York) (Photo: Quaku/Roderick Young)

H: And is your interest in collaboration, and your time spent working in the collective Studio Z, part of the same impulse for disrupting that box-filling narrative?

SN: Disrupting is a great word. All of this is somewhat of a disruption. It’s the same thing with my pseudonym names: I’m disrupting a flow of thought, an easy flow of thought.

H: And in terms of the aspects of your work that engage with an African heritage, was that something that you were aware of from your youth?

SN: When I was going to school, we really didn’t have any knowledge of ourselves: they didn’t teach African-American history. That history existed, but we weren’t given it: those books weren’t sanctioned for use in schools. When I was in high school, I found that most books on African art were French, so I tried to use my French to muddle through them. They were kind of depressing because even though they were beautiful in terms of images, there was an extreme colonial slant which was very disheartening. So my need to learn, my need to know my roots, took hold of me at that early stage.

H: Do you see any significant trends happening in the art world at the moment that you find exciting?

SN: That’s a big question. Even though it’s not a super new concept, I think this idea of Afro-Futurism is pretty exciting, although I guess we all felt we were Afro-Futurists at the time. Also, this new crop of black artists is phenomenal, especially when you consider what it was like when I was coming up in terms of being able to get into museums, etcetera. It’s also great to see so many black theorists and gallerists and historians, because as we mentioned before, many people simply didn’t understand African-American history in the past, so they didn’t write about it.

Senga Nengudi, “R.S.V.P. Reverie ‘D’” (2014) (courtesy the artist; Sprüth Magers, Berlin; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

H: What would you say are the major challenges facing young or emerging artists today?

SN: For any artist, I would say it’s finding your own voice and having the courage to speak in that voice. Because there are so many trends, and so many ways that people say you should do it, it’s important to find a genuine voice, even it’s bizarre and quirky — which I kind of feel like I am — to say, I just have to do it this way. I can’t do it anyone else’s way.

H: And what about the state of the US in general at the moment?

SN: It’s devastating. It’s tragic, basically. We’ve always said — even though there’s been reason not to say it — but it’s always been a democracy. And now that’s shifting dramatically, quickly. And as a black person, it’s very scary. In the past, I have said that just being born black in America is a political act. And that is becoming scarily true to a dramatic, not-safe extent. It’s a mess.

H: It’s interesting how the digital age means that there’s much more awareness of the inherent racism of the system today, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s getting any better, which is almost scarier.

SN: It is. It’s highlighting those things, but the simple highlighting of it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s the curious thing. There are cameras everywhere, in a Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother way, yet people still commit crimes, they still kill a black young man, without a gun, and you see the film and it doesn’t matter: they’re still not held responsible. There’s a climate of brutishness, I guess you might say, that’s been sanctioned by you-know-who, that allows people to think that they can do these things, and that is very scary.

H: And do you think that art can have a role to play in countering that or commenting on that?

SN: I do. Artists through the ages have always been commenters and documenters of the times. We all do it in our own way, but yes, absolutely.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Senga Nengudi, Study for “Mesh Mirage” (1977) (Courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York) (photo: Adam Avila)

Senga Nengudi is on view at Henry Moore Institute (The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH, United Kingdom) from September 21 until February 17, 2019.

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