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The Body in Art

Discover how artists represent and use the body to investigate their relationships to gender and identity.


R.S.V.P. I

Senga Nengudi
(American, born 1943)

2003. Pantyhose and sand, 10 pieces, Overall dimensions variable

To make this and other works in her R.S.V.P. series, Nengudi filled pantyhose with sand, then knotted and stretched them by tethering them to various points on a wall. The resulting bulging and sagging forms evoke body parts. Nengudi was inspired to use pantyhose as a material after her first pregnancy in the early 1970s, when she witnessed how quickly her body changed: “I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body,” Nengudi has explained. “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.”1 The artist often uses nylons that had been 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.”2

She debuted R.S.V.P. I in 1977 at Just Above Midtown (JAM), a pioneering nonprofit artists space in New York City that regularly exhibited works by artists of color. While her art challenges viewers to consider issues of identity such as race, gender, and the body, she also infuses her work with humor: “The first reaction is to giggle because you see something so common as panty hose being used in sculpture. And then again, you get deeper into the piece as you stay with it.”3

“Senga Nengudi,” from WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2007, p. 273
MoMA Artist Questionnaire
From MoMA Audio, interview with Senga Nengudi, 2011
Jori Finkel, “Q&A: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi,” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/27/entertainment/la-ca-pst-kellie-jones-interview-20111127

A classification system that organizes humans into large and distinct groupings based on appearance or geographical lineages. The concept of race has been criticized for being a simplistic, socially constructed categorization that has led to racism, or the unequal and unfair treatment of people based on race.

The socially constructed identity assigned to a person as a result of their sex.

Respond please! 
“R.S.V.P.” is an acronym for the French phrase “répondez s’il vous plaît,” or “respond, please”—an acronym that appears on invitations for parties and events. Nengudi has said that she called this series of works R.S.V.P. “because I wanted people to respond.”4

It’s in the Bag
“Because there was always an issue about money, my concept was I could take a whole show and put it in my purse,” Nengudi said. “I could take it out of my purse and hang it up and there you are—there would be no costs for installing or shipping. I liked this idea that a woman’s life is in her purse.”4

Dance and the Body
Nengudi spent a year studying dance in Japan at the beginning of the 1970s, and she says that “the movement of the body through space has been an important component of my art practice.”2