‘Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures’ Integrates Art with Dance

The DePaul Art Museum presents Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures,  an exhibition that surveys the sculpture, performance, and videos of American artist Senga Nengudi, with works dating from the 1970s to the present.

As a multi-disciplinary artist, Nengudi integrates her passion for the visual arts, dance, and body mechanics within her work. Trained as a dancer and a sculptor, Nengudi’s approach to art has been inspired by ritualistic performances from a wide range of sources including traditional African ceremonies, Japanese Kabuki Theater, and modern dance.

In 1975, Nengudi began a series of sculptures, entitled R.S.V.P.,  which evoke the elasticity and durability of the human body. These sculptures are made from pantyhose that the artist stretches, knots, twists, and fills with sand and other found materials. Each work invites viewers to imagine their own bodies stretching in unexpected ways. There is something inimitable about each sculpture because each one seems to have its own sense of movement and rhythm as it projects outward in various directions.

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist. 1977, 1977/2014. Digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

Nengudi has also used these nylon mesh sculptures as instruments that are activated as she and other performers entangle their bodies in the materials through dance-like movements. She started these series of sculptures in the 1970s when she observed how quickly her body changed through pregnancy. These works are also her reflection and exploration on how the body evolves over time. A quote from Nengudi on the wall text sums it up best when she states, “I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body … from tender, tight beginnings to sagging … the body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape.”

Nengudi was born in Chicago (1943) where she spent her early childhood. Her family later moved to Los Angeles where she studied art and dance and afterwards spent an influential year in Tokyo, Japan. She worked with a group of avant-garde African-American artists, such as David Hammons, Ulysses Jenkins, and Maren Hassinger, in Los Angeles and New York from the 1970s to the early 1980s. While living in New York City, her work was also featured at the Just Above Midtown Gallery in Harlem.

Besides her eight nylon-mesh sculptures that are on display, there are also about 30 photographs and a couple of videos that document her interactions with her sculptures through dance and performance. There is a series of photographs titled, Art Activity, Los Feliz Neighborhood Los Angeles  that shows Nengudi along with her collaborators tying and stretching colored nylon mesh bands in configurations that followed the outlines of garden beds in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The photographs underscore a central aspect of many of Nengudi’s performance works ― the relational interaction between bodies.

R.S.V.P. sculptures activated by the artist and Maren Hassinger in Performance Piece.  Pearl C. Wood Gallery, Los Angeles, 1977, 1977/2014. Digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

Also worth noting is a series of photos titled Flying, where Nengudi has various participants climb and jump off various ledges as if in flight. The participants are clothed in white with projected images of birds in flight on their bodies. The photos show the grace of figures leaping into the air while at the same time showing the vulnerability of falling as bodies give way to the law of gravity.

There are also a couple of videos that document her performance work. And there is one video by Nengudi that explores the ritual quality of textile production and repetitive physical labor.

This exhibition shows how Nengudi is a visionary as well as a master when it comes to integrating various disciplines of art. She is not merely a conceptual artist, but also a storyteller, showing us how closely people are connected together through common everyday experiences. Her artwork also hits the senses as viewers observe the resilience and fragility of not only the human body, but the human spirit as well.

Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures  will run from September 7 through December 10, 2017. The DePaul Art Museum is located at 935 W. Fullerton Avenue. Gallery hours are Wednesday and Thursday 11am-7pm, Friday 11am-5pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12pm-5pm. Admission is free. For more information, you can call the museum at 773-325-7506.

Thomas Wawzenek
Thomas Wawzenek