(American, born 1943)
2003. Pantyhose and sand, 10 pieces, Overall dimensions variable
Senga Nengudi began her career among a group of avant-garde black artists active in Los Angeles and New York in the 1970s and 1980s. She also absorbed influences from feminism, African and Japanese dance, music, and religious rituals, which continue to shape her installations, performances, sculptures, and collaborative works. Her works are composed of an evocative mix of natural and synthetic materials, often crafted into forms to be worn, touched, and used by Nengudi and the other performers who bring her work to life.
Among Nengudi’s early projects is her R.S.V.P. series, which she debuted in 1977 at Just Above Midtown (JAM), a pioneering art space in Manhattan representing work by African American and other artists of color. It consists of previously worn, dark-hued pantyhose partially knotted into pendulous, sand-filled sacks, then stretched and tethered to the wall in various changing arrangements. Though they stand alone as sculptural installations, these arrangements also serve as sites for performances by Nengudi and others. Entangled within their taught lines and bulging forms, the performers bend, reach, and pose, tugging on the pantyhose and stretching them further, or pushing around their ample sand pockets. Such actions reflect Nengudi’s grounding in dance, which is integral to her work. “The movement of the body through space has been an important component of my art practice,” she has said.1
R.S.V.P. grew out of Nengudi’s reflections upon the changes her body underwent during her first pregnancy, and, more generally, upon the shared experience of womanhood. With their flesh-tone coloring, and in their bulbous, sand-filled forms, the pantyhose evoke what the artist describes as the elasticity of the body. “I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body,” she 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.”2 Nengudi sees the female psyche, on the other hand, as more resilient, and aims to reflect this quality in the work as well. Like the pantyhose, the “psyche can stretch, stretch, stretch and come back into shape.”3
Produced by chemical synthesis, rather than of natural origin; prepared or made artificially.
A particular gradation of color; a shade or tint.
Touchable, or sensed by the touch.
A three-dimensional work of art made by a variety of means, including carving wood, chiseling stone, casting or welding metal, molding clay or wax, or assembling materials.
A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.
An element or substance out of which something can be made or composed.
A form of art, developed in the late 1950s, which involves the creation of an enveloping aesthetic or sensory experience in a particular environment, often inviting active engagement or immersion by the spectator.
The shape or structure of an object.
French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.
Nengudi took her title for this series from the acronym that appears on invitations for parties and events, “R.S.V.P.” It stands for the French phrase, “répondez s’il vous plaît,” meaning, “please respond”—which is exactly what the artist wants viewers to do when encountering these works. In fact, she has said that, ideally, people would physically engage with her tactile sculptural installations, just as she and her performers do. “This idea that people can brush up against sculpture, have a sensual experience with it, is really attractive to me.”4
Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Pantyhose
In her R.S.V.P. series and other works, Nengudi aims to address such fraught and fundamental components of identity as gender, race, and the physical characteristics of the body, the female body in particular. By using pantyhose collected from friends and purchased from secondhand stores, she evokes the presence of the women who once wore them. For her, this is “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.”5
Visual Art You Can Dance To
Senga Nengudi has always been interested in visual art, dance, and the body. Though she studied dance in school, and spent a year in Tokyo expanding upon her training, she understood that it takes a toll on the body. “Dance was my minor and art was my major,” she explained. “Even though I loved dance, I said to myself: Being a dancer, you have a limited time span, but you can be a [visual] artist forever. So that’s why I chose art, but it’s been dual all along.”6