Always deeply connected to the human body, Senga Nengudi’s work invokes ritual, narrative and connection between cultures disparate in geography and time.
The artist’s large-scale installations offer profound insights into her way of thinking and working. Sandmining B is an example of Nengudi’s expansive sand installations, which she has produced over the last twenty years. Emerging from an area of sand is a series of breast-like mounds topped with intensely saturated pigments, as well as scattered metal car parts that snake through and extend upward from the work’s lightly tinted field. Along a back wall, a tall piece of muffler is adorned with dozens of tightly knotted nylons in shades of black, brown and blue, picking up the material that has featured so prominently across Nengudi’s work since the 1970s.
“I’m hoping that my work has a similar latent energy to it, even if it’s not being activated, that there’s a sense of movement.” – Senga Nengudi
Though technically static, Sandmining B also carries traces of energetic motion, in footprints visible in the sand, which offer traces of the installation’s making; and in sweeping sprays of pigment across the wall, whose vibrant hues of blue, green, yellow, orange and dark ochre echo those found on the sandy field below. Moreover, where stockings in her past projects have usually evoked the female body, here the appendages are distinctly male, with loose fragments of hose inferring femininity as well.
“All of this is somewhat of a disruption. . . I’m disrupting a flow of thought, an easy flow of thought.” – Senga Nengudi
In the room-sized installation Bulemia (1988/2018), newspapers cover the interior walls to create a visual and textual field that parallels the sandy field of Sandmining B. In the upper half of the installation, entire spreads are visible, giving the full context of news, advertisements and printed mescellany. At the wall’s midpoint, the papers begin to fan out like a skirt gently resting on a foundational layer of tightly packed balls of newsprint, covered in gold spray paint. Other gold embellishments across Bulemia add a regal touch to the minutiae of daily life that viewers encounter throughout the sprawling work.
The content of Nengudi’s installation Bulemia likewise attempts to flip a negative concept into a positive one. Interspersed with stories both momentous and mundane—as any newspaper issue will offer—news items relating to African Americans and Black subjects assert themselves through the artist’s deliberate selections, arrangements and sprayed zones of gilding. Her gold additions mask particular areas of the papers, focusing our attention on particular words, phrases, and images, many of which carry uplifting connotations: “See more love,” “just hold on.” Though Bulemia’s newspapers document historic tragedies such as HIV/AIDS and economic meltdowns, stories of Black artists, musicians, sportspeople and religious figures come to the fore, all of which ground the artist’s vision in reality while pointing toward a not-so-distant utopia where the fullness and ebullience of African American life makes the headlines.
“We’re all part of the same tapestry. It’s important that we know as much as we can know, and be exposed to as much as possible, and be motivated, inspired, and show interest in something that’s beyond our own personal history.” – Senga Nengudi
On the occasion of this exhibition, Senga Nengudi, Barbara McCullough and Naima J. Keith discussed the artists’ past collaborations and Nengudi’s Bulemia project on December 11, 2020. Click here to view a recording of their conversation.