For over four decades, artist Senga Nengudi has been pushing at the boundaries between sculpture, photography, and performance. A member of the African American avant-garde in Los Angeles and New York during the 1970s and 1980s, Nengudi began her career with innovative sculptures and performances, staged within art spaces and beyond gallery walls, that expanded the definition of sculpture, while simultaneously drawing on performance art’s ephemeral capabilities to investigate and question. For Nengudi, this mode worked well to examine and seek to define women’s delimited roles in contemporary culture. Marking her first solo exhibition in Germany, the artist”s current exhibition at Sprüth Magers is a concise and powerful summary of her work at a time of significant debates worldwide over power and identity.
At the center of the show are recent sculptures from Nengudi’s celebrated R.S.V.P series, which the artist first began in the late 1970s in response to her changing pregnant body. Using nylon stockings, sand, and metal objects, Nengudi generates delicate, webbed and knotted forms that stretch across walls, from one wall to another, or from the wall to the floor. Mixing abstract representations of the body with political undertones that define women’s roles and societal cues, the pieces work as a sort of reflection and re-creation of social limits. Nengudi has used similar works in the past as part of performances, allowing the stretchy fabric to allow her to move in relation to walls and corners while holding her body in place, a fitting commentary on social and structural imbalance. In the late 1970s, the artist took photographs of many of these performances. Performers wear these materials as costumes of sorts, transforming into alien or insect-like beings. More than mere documentation, her images are carefully staged, often symmetrical in composition, and add to the power of her groundbreaking sculptural work. A selection of photographs from these pieces are also presented.
Senga Nengudi (Installation View), via Sprüth Magers
Yet at the same time that these works pose alienation and struggle as central themes, Nengudi’s sculptures are framed as an ode to the resiliency of the female body and mind. Dancers, including the artist herself, move and manipulate the strands, bending and turning as they catch their limbs in the sculptures’ nylon networks. Their contortions echo the ways in which women have had to conform to society’s expectations, but at the same time, underscores the power of their movements to reshape the world in turn. Rather than merely work at the framing of the body in modernity as one constantly bound by oppressive resistance, Nengudi seems to pose the act of struggle, of movement both with and against these limits as a mode of change in itself, one which both defines a new space bound by rules and meanings that have since been altered and reformatted by their relationship to the original struggles. Nengudi poses progress and time not as a static series of oppositions, but rather as a series of fluid exchanges, of a site where a brighter world emerges from points of contact, of re-uses, and perhaps most importantly, of challenges.
The show closes September 8th.
— D. Creahan
Senga Nengudi at Sprüth Magers [Exhibition Site]