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Bodily Response: Senga Nengudi at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans

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Senga Nengudi, RSVP sculpture
Senga Nengudi, Untitled (R.S.V.P.), 2013; nylon, sand, and mixed media.

The continuing argument of what it means to be female and to make art is at the core of art’s relationship to and impact upon feminism, and my intellectual and personal engagement with art and its histories.[1] For as art historian Anne Wagner states, this is an argument “that mitigates from artist to artist and will continue to do so until women’s achievements are no longer seen as ‘exceptional’”—thus, it is an argument that is as exciting to answer as it is depressing.[2] Walking around the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans’s current exhibition “Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures,” I found myself wading deep into this feminist-informed space of questions and demands, eager to mobilize visual and historical relationships between female-ness, objecthood, embodiment, and achievement, perhaps as a wish to come closer to teasing out what exactly a feminist art practice might/could be. I was, of course, rewarded for my work due the rich mass of sculptural, photographic, filmic, and archival works presented within the exhibition; but I was not rewarded because Nengudi’s work provided me with secure, unshakable answers to the question of what it means to be both female and artist, but because her objects and visual images capture something of the fluctuating concerns and conditions that have defined feminist art since the 1970s.

Senga Nengudi: Improvisations installation
Installation view of “Senga Nengudi: Improvisations,” on view at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans through June 18.

The highlight of “Improvisational Gestures,” which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the University of Colorado Gallery of Contemporary Art, are selections from Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. series of sculptural assemblages made of pantyhose —partially filled with sand — that have been knotted, twisted, and stretched across the walls. Conjuring the sagging, drooping, elastic conditions of the human body and its dynamic capabilities, the R.S.V.P, works speak of bodies of all genders and subjectivities, yet place a particular emphasis on the physical and psychic constrictions of the female body in contemporary culture.

Georgia Museum of Art

Untitled (R.S.V.P.), 2013, is a series of tan-toned pantyhose pinned in a casual horizontal across the white wall, extending into the viewer’s space and spreading into the familiar open angles of legs. The ends are filled with sand, which suggest feet that touch and overlap as if to cuddle or crush one another, offering clues to the viewer to engage them as active objects that are in some state of movement. Whether that movement is joyful or threatening is ambiguous. Knots and twists hang in between the split legs, suggesting phallic forms and vaginal architectures simultaneously, however, Nengudi’s overt decision to use cheap nylon undergarments suggest that the context of these forms are deeply inflected by a female body and a female’s social experience of her body.[3]

Senga Nengudi, RSVP Sculpture
Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P.: Sculpture Activated By the Artist,1977; photograph.

Nengudi has discussed her prevalent use of pantyhose as a response to the physical and emotional changes that occurred during and after her pregnancy with her son in 1974. Amazed at the ways in which her body changed, expanded, collapsed, and re-formed, and aware of the reasons that women choose to wear pantyhose (often for professional moments that require extra courage, such as professional job interviews or presentations), Nengudi reflects on the material as a kind of corporeal cage where the edges of the body can be felt or restricted.[4]

However, these pantyhose limbs stretch (literally) into an expansive field of questions around gender entirely. Yes, these pantyhose are deeply gendered items, and register the vast field of oppressive connotations and conditions set upon the female body specifically, but they also do work to suggest that the notion of the male/female binary is not one made up of pure difference. Embodiment belongs to all of us—it is what we all share. This cancellation or collapse forces questions such as: What is a female/male body? What are its conditions, or properties? How do I know? What forms of embodiment are about belonging as opposed to exclusion?

Senga Nengudi, RSVP Sculpture Activated by Maren Hassinger
Senga Nengudi, R.S.V.P.: Sculpture Activated by Maren Hassinger in Performance Piece, 1977; photograph.

Operating in and around these questions of gender, embodiment, and objecthood is the extension of these questions into collaboration and performance. The images of the artist as well as her longtime friend and collaborator Maren Hassinger performing and responding with Nengudi’s works resonate powerfully, and while they engage deeply with many of the neo-avant-garde strategies that shaped art in the 1960s and ’70s, such as individual authorship interdisciplinarity, and improvisational movement, they also are documents of a female partnership that turns away from the hyper-masculine narratives and contexts this art historical moment offers.

Georgia Museum of Art

‘R.S.V.P’ in French poses the polite command to the recipient to “respond, if you please,”—a title that quietly instills engagement (whether as viewer or collaborator) at the heart of these works. For Nengudi, the better responses were those that occurred through improvisation and dance. Just a few years after Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer began their experiments with pedestrian movement and collective choreography at the Judson Dance Theater in Greenwich Village, Nengudi was working with Studio Z—a loose collective of African American artists such as Barbara McCullough and David Hammons that experimented with the conceptual boundaries of visual and performative practices in Los Angeles in the 1970s as a way to open visual art to the fluctuating rhythms and tempos of “the everyday.” This relationship between movement, collaboration, and improvisation is deeply mined in Nengudi’s practices, and requires us to fit these sculptural objects into a much larger project of collaborations, performances, and environmental contexts that spans almost 40 years. The archival photographs that live as documentary evidence of these early performances are emphasized in the exhibition, and inspire reflection upon the ways in which these objects, informed by bodies, move and change when real bodies “activate” them.

What resonates as most potent is that the images present Nengudi and Hassinger as collaborators entangling themselves within them. Pressing, leaning, pulling, and hanging precariously outside or inside these works, Nengudi and Hassinger are individual makers and movers who share in the creation and explication of the R.S.V.P. works. Items like pantyhose that work to subordinate and restrict female bodies now become supportive tools for aesthetic and bodily exploration that points to the resilience of the material as well as the forms of resilience required of women and women artists alike. Leaving the Nengudi exhibition, it was clear that if there is any responsibility that women artists have to feminism, it is to make work that allows entanglement, support, risk, and collaboration to happen.


NOTES:

[1] Thank you to Allison Abey, Director of External Affairs at the CACNO, and Andrea Andersson, Helis Foundation Curator for the Visual Arts at the CACNO, for all their help and support in the writing and researching of this article.

[2] See Anne Middleton Wagner, ‘Another Hesse’ in Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pg. 203.

[3] Nengudi has stated a number of times that the pantyhose used in these works were used, ore previously worn “as a way of accessing the residual energy of what it means for a woman to wear these garments, the imposed tightness and packaging of one’s body.” Statement from a Museum of Modern Art Audio Interview with the artist, 2011.

[4] See Nengudi’s 2015 public presentation and interview with curator Nora Burnett Jones at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver for Feminism & Co.—a weekly lecture series that explores contemporary culture through issues relating to women and gender. Link to the presentation and interview here.


“Senga Nengudi: Improvisations” remains on view at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans through June 18.

Jordan Amirkhani is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. In addition to her academic work, she serves as a regular contributor and art critic to many national arts publications, namely, the San Francisco-based contemporary art forum Daily Serving.