It will need to have been within the fall of 2011 that I first noticed the nice Senga Nengudi’s work. That was when the artwork historian and curator Kellie Jones unveiled her landmark exhibition “Now Dig This!: Artwork and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980” at L.A.’s Hammer Museum. An in depth and enriching show, the present included items by an outstanding vary of creators, amongst them Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Suzanne Jackson, Maren Hassinger, David Hammons, Betye Saar, Alonzo Davis, and Houston Conwill—artists who helped outline a time and a spot that their East Coast contemporaries knew little, if something, about. Strolling into the present was like coming into a brand new environment, particularly when you primarily related the 20 years that Jones was exploring with Pop artwork and minimalism and the few “stars” of these actions. The artists represented in Jones’s highly effective “different” world operated out of what I now see as a kind of religious necessity, a want to make use of their supplies—paint, wooden, wire rope, what have you ever—to speak the complexities of their internal view.
Of all the gorgeous and startling artwork I noticed in “Now Dig This!,” it was Senga Nengudi’s that wouldn’t let me or my creativeness go. I knew nothing about her, besides what I realized from the present’s catalogue—that she was born Sue Ellen Irons, in Chicago in 1943, and moved to Pasadena, after which Los Angeles, as a baby. Later, I learn that in her years at Dorsey Excessive College Nengudi was topic to a type of silent segregation, with Black college students staying in a sure space at lunchtime. She skilled with the dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade at Lester Horton’s legendary dance studio in West Hollywood. (Horton had an incredible curiosity in Native American dance and rituals.) In 1965, as a scholar at California State College, she acquired a scholarship from the Fashionable Dance Membership of Los Angeles, and, at about the identical time, started instructing artwork on the Watts Towers Arts Middle. By means of a graduate program, she travelled to Japan in 1966, attracted by the concept of the Gutai Artwork Affiliation, a bunch of younger Japanese artists whose focus was on “happenings” and experimentation—breaking the body to make work that was bodily free, unbounded.
Nengudi’s artwork from the early seventies displays these experiences—and African tradition, too. In 1974, a boyfriend from Zaire suggested her on her title change. In Duala, the language of Cameroon, senga means “to hear or hear,” and a nengudi is a girl who involves energy as a standard healer. The artist David Hammons, a pal of Nengudi’s, says that she couldn’t relate to the American Black nationalism of these years, with its inherently patriarchal construction. For Nengudi, the one motive to have a construction was to play inside its parameters—after which explode them. Included in “Now Dig This!” was a bit from a collection referred to as “R.S.V.P.” (1977/2003), which makes use of commonplace supplies—pantyhose, sand—to create biomorphic shapes that evoke the physique in extremis, ladies twisting and turning to slide into a fabric that mainly encases them. In an announcement concerning the collection, Nengudi wrote, “I’m working with nylon mesh as a result of it pertains to the elasticity of the human physique. From tender, tight beginnings to sagging . . . the physique can solely stand a lot push and pull till it offers means, by no means to renew its authentic form.”
Nengudi attracts on the stress between freedom and resistance, collapse and resurrection. From the start of her profession, she established her personal poetics of the physique and the way it strikes via the world, a poetics that’s unimpeded by racial distinctions; Nengudi takes from the cultures which have influenced her and recasts all of them in her personal picture. As I checked out Nengudi’s nylon stretching from one wall to a different, it occurred to me that her true soul sister, artistically talking, was Eva Hesse. For her 1970 work “Untitled (Rope Piece),” Hesse dipped rope into liquid latex, then hung it from the ceiling and partitions; the latex hardened, making a weblike construction that dangled from the looped tangle of rope. It’s artwork weighed down, simply as Nengudi’s pantyhose are weighed down and stretched out by all these absent, accommodating ladies. Hesse made “Untitled (Rope Piece)” as she was dying, of mind most cancers; Nengudi started her “R.S.V.P.” work after the start of her first baby.
Life and dying and the transition between them, with artwork as an expression of each continuums (as a result of in Nengudi’s world nothing ever dies; it evolves): that is simply one of many themes you will discover in Nengudi’s delicate and memorable eponymous exhibition at Dia Beacon, via February, 2025. With the curator Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, Nengudi places the Dia’s impeccable, calm area on discover. In contrast to the fabulous John Chamberlain and Blinky Palermo showcases which are up concurrently, Nengudi’s artwork doesn’t sit nonetheless, content material to be on show. Whereas the present isn’t a retrospective—you gained’t discover the “R.S.V.P.” items right here—it does convey her now fifty-year-old philosophical perception in move, in how audiences can transfer with, away from, or towards a piece, relying on their very own distinctive power and the power of the set up. However Nengudi is not any show-off; she’s each too humble and too confident to really feel that she has to return out “on high.” As a substitute of treating her issues calmly—or closely—she lets them simply be; they’re as pure to her as respiration.
The present is a type of occurring throughout 5 galleries. It has a way of play that solely provides to the sensation of intimacy. The very first thing you see is “Moist Evening—Early Daybreak—Scat Chant—Pilgrim’s Tune” (1996), a multimedia work that features a choice of spray-can work on cardboard, coated in bubble wrap and dry-cleaning luggage. Bubble wrap makes one other look right here: on the middle of the room is a big carpet of the stuff; Nengudi has mentioned that it’s meant to evoke the sound of firecrackers in potentia. It’s possible you’ll not know particularly what she is referencing right here, and that’s O.Okay., as a result of you possibly can really feel it: you’re embarking on a journey wherein artwork (these spray-can work) is at residence with impermanence (all that plastic wrapping). Within the corners of the room, Nengudi has sprinkled earth-toned pigment, blended with what seems like glitter, rivulets of coloration that seemingly shift and unfold with foot visitors. On one wall, she has drawn a pink physique—it’s the one figurative illustration within the present—that seems to be flying in a circle. When Toni Morrison wrote “Tune of Solomon” (1977), she was, partly, impressed by tales she’d heard of Black enslaved folks flying again to Africa. The flight of Nengudi’s determine seems like a type of launch—of power whirling and then touchdown someplace. In our goals, maybe.
Motion, move: Nengudi, a visible compatriot of the musician and spiritualist Alice Coltrane, is fascinated by water and what it may make us think about. “Water Composition II” (1970/2019) and “Water Composition III” (1970/2018) share a gallery within the present. In “Water Composition II” (it’s an particularly giant work—greater than fifteen toes huge), a bit of plastic stretches between ropes anchored on both wall. Nestled in that plastic is an oblong clear vinyl bag full of blue-tinted water. Two different luggage of blue water sit on the ground. The piece as a complete seems like a type of ark or boat that travels via your thoughts in its personal expanse of blue. It wouldn’t be arduous to see on this train of coloration and type the affect of the artist Dan Flavin, however Flavin didn’t sketch out his concepts about water and lightweight till 1974, by which period Nengudi had quickly stopped making these items. (She was postpone by the rising reputation of water beds.) In a 2013 interview carried out in Colorado, the place she has lived since 1989, she mentioned that her water compositions had been “the start of my sensual self”; the sculptures, she added, had a “sense of physique” when you felt them.
When the water works have been absorbed to most impact, Nengudi and Guidelli-Guidi current a brand new visible area within the final massive room. Viewing “Sandmining B” (2020) is like standing by a playground sandbox, stuffed with bright-colored curved tubes and different superbly common detritus that has been forgotten or left behind to be picked up on one other day. (A tender and wonderful soundtrack performs within the room, that includes, amongst different artists, the California-raised cornettist Butch Morris.) Pausing for a second, we surprise the place we are actually, the place we’ve ended up in spite of everything our travels via air and sea and land, accompanying Nengudi on her inner wanderings. The shores of our personal being? Or smack dab in the midst of Nengudi’s patch of the world, the place, if we will place our belief in metaphors and artwork, we’re sure to really feel one thing like transcendence? ♦