Key figure among African-American artistic avant-garde, Senga Nengudi (b. 1943, lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO) shaped an oeuvre between sculpture and choreographed performances. On the occasion of the monograph exhibition organized by Munich Lenbachhaus, Pinault Collection loans a work from her iconic series R.S.V.P.


Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus /
Munich



Senga Nengudi
<a class="switch">Text</a><br> <b>Muna El Fituri</b><br> <span style="display: none;"> Artist, curator, and art critic </span>





“Being born black in America is still a political event.” <br/> Senga Nengudi <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>Senga Nengudi’s enigmatic <i>R.S.V.P. Winter 1976</i> (1976/2003), a melancholy shadow of a performance, slowly draws the viewer in by its ephemeral presence, at once static and seemingly pulsating, still imbued with the rhythm of the taps and breaths of her balletic gestures. It is a domestic trophy suspended on a wall, a severed head whose human figure had given it the geometric depth of a sculpture in movement. A rounded belly with limbs, echoing the silhouetted dimensionality of a body in space both visible and suggested. The nylons embody the vestiges of domesticity and the feminine, while encouraging a radical rethinking of the ritualistic origins of sculptural and performative practice. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>Nengudi infuses poetry into everyday objects. The nylons become a metaphor for the magic, the imagination, the miracle of birth. Stretched thin, manipulated, arched, extended, crossed, formed, her nylon works from the R.S.V.P. series look like braids, dreads, twists, wisps, suspended on a smooth white wall. They are the magician’s tools she uses in her dance and movement performances. The stockings, when activated, transform into cascading, sculptural locks radiating out like sun rays. In <i>R.S.V.P. Winter 1976</i>, two pairs of pantyhose, one brown, one beige, encircle an inverted bicycle tire, belly swollen, engorged with life or the remainder of it. Through the transparency one makes out tied knots of twine and more fabric, barely visible umbilical cords, resting after having nourished the new life. It is an allegory, a hymn to the miracle of birthing. Nengudi spoke of these works as having been borne out of her thoughts and feelings around her pregnancy, with this idea of the incredible resilience of the human body that can stretch impossibly wide and full, to then resume its (almost) initial shape. Nengudi is performing/mythologizing the divine act of putting art into the world. The simplicity of the materials further focuses the viewer on the beauty of the form, the melancholically pendulous nippled breasts cascading on each side of the central oval. The knotted appendices hang delicately on the sides, gently weighed down by gravity. These are the fabric that ties everything together. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>The form is at once familiar and unfamiliar, the compressed and distended roundness of the central shape takes us on a journey through some of Nengudi’s life markers gleaned from the books, articles, and papers written about her, the aesthetic influence of the Gutai school she came in contact with during her sojourn in Japan in the early 1970s, the echoes of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Watts riots she lived through while teaching at the Towers in Los Angeles, her encounter with Eva Hesse’s work at the Pasadena Art Museum, Brazilian “body” art from the 1960s and 1970s, pregnancy and the birth of her children, the friends and family whose nylons she used in her work, the gender tensions in the black art community of that time. The RSVP series resists easy categorization. It complicates the traditional linear discourse around gender, race, culture, ethnicity. In 1976, her works did not fit neatly into the white feminist rhetoric (with their clear acknowledgment of the black working mother) or in what was seen as Black Political Art (in their abstract postminimal language). The sculptures reclaimed a sensual bodily space, with their stretch marks, bulges, knots, elongations, twists and pulls, at once fragile and seemingly indestructible. <br/> <br/> <span class="alinea"></span>The sculptural form of <i>R.S.V.P. Winter</i> 1976 is felt first—as it is being seen. The piece plays with the surrounding architecture, activates the lifeless supporting white wall, both a necessity and something to fight against. The tension occurs within the piece as well, with the tire continuing to expand imperceptibly while simultaneously being restricted by the encasing nylons. It feels unstable, widening and contracting, elongating and reshaping, as gravity continues its intermittent pressure. It questions the notion of space as a static entity. It asks the viewer to respond (<i>Répondez s’il vous plaît</i>), providing a mirror, a reflection of oneself, at once universal experience and deeply personal meditative moment. The subtle humor in the work is not lost, a play on shapes and materials, a play on words and meanings. Nengudi mentions in interviews Bre’r Rabbit, the trickster who prevails through wit rather than brawn, a figure profoundly embedded in the black vernacular—a hint at the deeply political nature of her work. The piece takes us out of this endless cycle of consumerism, titillation and boredom we live in, it creates a bridge to an imaginary performative space filled with the most common and simple objects— a space she breathes life into by inviting the viewer to a silent gestural conversation, a space where imagination prevails. It reminds us that sculpture is action made manifest.
<i>R.S.V.P. Winter 1976</i>, 1976-2003 <br/> Nylon, mesh, bicycle tire, string <br/> 91 × 66 × 26 cm
<i>Performance Piece</i>, 1977 <br/> (detail) <br/> Performer : Maren Hassinger
 

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