Living through the intensity of the times we’re in, artist Senga Nengudi is thinking about what’s happening to us internally.
“There’s a lot going on inside our bodies,” says Nengudi, who first made her name as a leader of the Black American avant-garde in the 1970s and has a career retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this month (through July 25) — the largest show of her work ever presented.
“We’re trying to hold it together, so to speak, and everybody wants to go back to normalcy. There is no normalcy, whether it’s back to normalcy or new normalcy. This is new. We’re in a new time. And we have to look at this new time as what it is, instead of retreating back to safety.”
Senga Nengudi: Topologies is one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new exhibits as it welcomes visitors to explore its grand-scale renovation, but also as pandemic restrictions loosen and reshape expectations for everyday life. In this moment, there’s no turning back, but that also means it’s a powerful time to forge a new path, Nengudi explains.
“We have an opportunity, because it’s a new time, to frame things the way we want, and to create a new reality that is much more appropriate and egalitarian than what was before,” says Nengudi, 77.
Nengudi was an art student and art teacher during the Black Arts Movement in the early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, she was a member of the Los Angeles-based collective Studio Z, where she collaborated with artists like David Hammons and Barbara McCullough. The mixed-media installations in her new exhibition include sand, pantyhose, vinyl, water, and other materials, along with archival footage of Nengudi and her collaborators at work.
A trained dancer, she has incorporated movement into her sculptural work throughout her career. Even still, images of the pieces on the display can convey kinetic energy, but in person, the scale and shape of the works invite you to move. Nengudi says visitors may see stretched body parts in some of her pieces. To view it, visitors may have to stretch their own bodies to see her details.
Warp Trance, a video installation originally presented in Philadelphia at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, features footage from textile mills and is projected against screens made from perforated cards used in Jacquard textile production. The work can’t be fully seen from one angle, and is understood differently through its shadows.
Nengudi thinks her exhibition, which covers a half century’s worth of art from 1970 to 2020, could give visitors a chance to see what they’ve been feeling on the inside.
If people see their interior emotions in her pieces, she sees that as an opportunity too: “That in and of itself can be very healing to know that you’re not alone.”
The Inquirer spoke to Nengudi about ritual, how her work has been (mis)understood, and her awe over the moment that Black artists are experiencing in the art world here and abroad. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
What are some of the common threads that you’re seeing in your work over time?
Well, of course movement is one. Dealing with body issues is another … This desire to have a participator or the viewer really have an experience with my work, so that they can kind of go on a journey with me. Are you familiar with [Australian] Aboriginal art?
Not too familiar, no.
Well, they have this whole thing — some more than traditional work — about dream time. And when you see some of their canvases and the patterns on their canvases, they’re kind of inviting you to go on this dream time with them, to go on this journey with them. And that’s kind of how I feel about my work. If someone is so moved, then they can go with me. We can have a dialogue and exchange while they’re looking at the work.
Your work, earlier in your career, was misunderstood, politically. Also you were very much getting started as an artist during a time of intense social change in this country. Now, we’re again having a really intense time of social change. Do you feel like your work is better understood now?
Our work was not only misunderstood it was dismissed as having any sense of importance. Now we have all these wonderful scholars … that are being trained through college and other residencies, such as Studio Museum in Harlem and so on, where these young Black scholars can really talk about theory and history and all that other kind of stuff. Before, there wasn’t that much.
There were a few wonderful scholars that dealt with our work but the white establishment they had no words for it. … They had no vocabulary or a deep understanding of where the work was coming from, and so therefore, they dismissed it.
What has it been like for you to see the tide change and to experience this retrospective now?
My mouth is open all the time. I go, ‘Oh? Huh? Wha? Oh my god! You mean, Kara Walker is at MoMA, and David Hammons is at the Whitney, and Lorna Simpson is in Paris?’ I just feel this is so wonderful that we can have an art season, where they’re the most amazing Black artists in the most amazing institutions and major galleries and so on. I’m in awe. I’m telling you, I’m thrilled that I’m alive to see it. [It’s] a privilege that some of my other dear hearts weren’t able to have before they passed.
A quote of yours is that “Ritual really controls all our lives. You can even think of racism as ritual.” Could you share more about what you meant by that?
Yes, because it’s so consistent. It’s like, with ritual, we don’t even think about going through our lives, what that looks like ritualistically speaking. You know, we brush our teeth in a particular way; we might even meditate in a particular way; we put our clothing on in a particular way because we want a particular outcome.
Well, with racism, there are things in place that are there to create a particular outcome, whether it’s intimidation, whether it’s oppression or whatever. So there’s a real system of ritual. Usually, you think of ritual as positive, but there’s a real structure of negativity or oppression that happens with this ritual of racism. They’re throwing around “systemic racism” these days — you might look at the systemic aspect of it as being highly ritualistic.
How do you see ritual in terms of your work?
Since we’ve been talking about this issue of me having a relationship with the viewer, I might look at it in that sense, that I’m creating a work that hopefully will have a particular outcome with the viewer that is viewing it. I think ritual is really, extremely important, because it’s also kind of about an intention. What do I want here? How do I want to affect other people, and how do I want to be affected by this system that I go through? How do I set it up so that I can reach, you know, kind of another level?
When you talk about wanting the work to have a particular outcome, do you feel like when you’re working you’re seeking a specific outcome for the people? How do you see the intention that you’re giving versus how people receive?
When I was in New York I was able to see this exhibit at the New Museum called “Grief and Grievance.” There was a particular series of extraordinary portraits by Dawoud Bey. And so, my friend and I were looking at it, and we had this whole conversation about what we thought it was. And when we read the information we found out that it was different from what we had surmised as the meaning of this piece.
So I can’t really control what someone thinks about when they look at my piece. I have to do it as close as possible to some thought that I have about whatever I’m trying to put across. But the viewer has to bring their own story.
And I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what experiences they’ve had in their life. But I know if there’s no title or description of the piece on the wall, then … they have to have a shared experience by bringing who they are to it.
Senga Nengudi: Topologies
Through July 25 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, free with museum admission. Current museum hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri.-Mon. (open until 8:45 p.m. Fridays), closed Tue.-Thur. Details at philamuseum.org