By Isabella Mojares for The Dance Journal
Craning my neck to see past the gallery attendant about to scan my ticket, past a dimly lit vestibule, I see a bright red room with swaths of black vinyl hanging from the ceiling.
This is the first section in Senga Nengudi: Topologies, the most recent exhibit to grace the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Dorrance Galleries. Organized chronologically to follow the arc of Nengudi’s artistic career up to the present day, Black and Red Ensemble (1971) is the perfect opener to the show. On display for the very first time since its debut as the artist’s M.A. project at California State University, Black and Red’s enveloping, interactive nature speaks to two major throughlines in the artist’s work.
Moving from all-encompassing experience to smaller scale, the second section of the exhibit is dedicated to Nengudi’s Water Compositions – a series of work created out of vinyl pouches holding food-coloring dyed water, hung by ropes from the gallery walls. Though the wall text tells you that in their original exhibition, viewers were invited to manipulate the objects and feel the rippling of the water through the sculpture, at the PMA, it’s all hands off. Alongside these plastic-y assemblages hang images of more early explorations by Nengudi, telling stories of the delicate fluttering of flag-like figurines she cut out and strung outside various public spaces. Of course, in a still image, this movement is hard to capture. At many points, for an exhibit so mired in movement, it appears as if the galleries are begging to be activated with movement.
There is no denying Senga Nengudi’s understanding of space and form — a trained dancer and sculptor, her approach to the negative and positive space of objects is incredible. Not only does she create objects in intriguing shapes and textures, she also has a great sense of how an individual might want to interact with said object.
A majority of Topologies is dedicated to the body of work collectively known as R.S.V.P, which nestles perfectly between her worlds of embodied sculpture and abstract performance. The main medium of these objects is nylon pantyhose, a material Nengudi began to experiment with after giving birth to her first son in 1975. In manipulating the stockings to create little pockets to fill with sand, the bulbous knots of the nylons give them a bodily quality, emphasized by the tan and brown color palette. The same way a new mother’s body sags, droops, and stretches, so do these sculptures. The same way bodies lose their elasticity from repeated use and passing time, so do these sculptures.
Accompanied by ephemera such as artist’s notes, programs, and photographs, visitors are reminded that these static sculptures were in fact a part of performances conceived by Nengudi. The images tell stories of dancers moving with the stockings, weaving their bodies through webs of the material, pulling and prodding the already-delicate fabric. Aesthetically, the objects and performances of R.S.V.P. are no far cry from the work being done by Nengudi’s white contemporaries — Simone Forti especially. It would be dismissive to draw direct comparison and say that Nengudi’s work is more nuanced. It would also be essentialist to say that the nuance in her work comes from her identity as a Black woman. Put best by the artist herself,
ANYTHING I MAKE
HAS BLACK FINGERPRINTS ALL OVER IT
BECAUSE I AM BLACK
ANYTHING I MAKE
HAS THE FRAGRANCE OF A WOMAN
BECAUSE I AM A WOMAN
ANYTHING I MAKE
HAS A RECOGNITION OF SPIRIT
AND A SALUTATION TO THE ONE
BECAUSE I AM THAT.
Nengudi’s blackness is not an asset to her work or her artistic perspective — she reminds viewers that identity is inseparable and inescapable. The fragrance and the fingertips come with the artist, manifesting in all they do and create.
Well aware of the personal nature of art-making, Senga Nengudi also knows the inherent individuality of art-viewing. Despite echoes of used bodies, worn bodies, R.S.V.P is open ended for all. Even in name, it begs viewers to consider their own experiences and associations upon seeing the work.
As much as Nengudi (who has created work under various aliases in another nod to the multiplicity of identity) emphasizes individuality, she is also known for her work as a collaborative artist. A major figure of the Black Arts Movement, Nengudi was heavily involved in the collective Studio Z, working alongside other Black artists in Los Angeles. Following the show’s theme of a reliance on video, stills, and paper trail records of live happenings, the latter half of the exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s collaborative efforts.
Overall, my biggest hope is that Senga Nengudi: Topologies puts the artist on the radar of a larger demographic of performers, visual artists, and art enthusiasts alike. While the exhibition does not exactly paint a holistic picture of the breadth of Nengudi’s practice (how could you without live performance?) Philadelphia’s art scene could benefit from more exhibitions such as this one, allowing visitors to expand their lexicon of art and performance history.
Senga Nengudi: Topologies is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until July 25. Go see it before it closes.