1945, USA; lives and works in Los Angeles
In 2014, Senga Nengudi reacted to the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year old African American man shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, by describing the improvisation and street smarts necessary, day in day out, for any black person to exist in American society: “When we were kicked off the boat, improvisation was the survival tool: to act in the moment, to figure something out that hadn’t been done before; to live. And the tradition goes through Jazz. Jazz is the perfect manifestation of constant improvisation. (…) Constant adjustment in a hostile environment, you have to figure something out right away… Being born black in America is still a political event.” Fifty years earlier, in 1965, right after the Watts riots—six days of rage against economic oppression and police racism in that Los Angeles neighbourhood—S. Nengudi watched the National Guard rushing towards the still smoking streets. The toll was high: 35 dead, more than 1,000 injured, more than 3,000 arrests, a neighbourhood where homes and shops had been destroyed—and a mordant awareness which would forge generations of artists, intellectuals, and activists, as only the Harlem Renaissance had previously done. In 1965, S. Nengudi had just graduated from California State University, where she had studied art and dance. She taught at the Watts Towers Arts Center directed by Noah Purifoy and was already looking at the emancipatory and healing possibilities offered by contacts between performance, sculpture, assemblage, and rituals. Like all the artists affiliated with Watts, including Barbara McCullough, with whom she would later collaborate, she was looking for an artistic language suited to the social, political, and aesthetic context. Keen to break with the West, she even went to Japan, but it was in fact in L. A., in the mid-1970s, that she would find her own artistic vocabulary. Together with B. McCullough, Maren Hassinger, Franklin Parker, Houston Conwill, Ulysses Jenkins, and more occasionally David Hammons and others, they formed the Studio Z collective. Interested in jazz, improvisation and dance, and brought together by a desire for performative interactions with their practices, they worked together and experimented with overlooked materials and forgotten spaces. The experience of pregnancy was another important factor for S. Nengudi, who began to use used tights in her installations in 1974. Reflecting the elasticity of the body and the resilience of the female condition, she stretched them to breaking point, filled them with sand and created bundles of lines and protuberances, where the time frame of the forms of natural matter put the fineness of the synthetic membrane in a state of tension. Far from any neutrality, this object which accompanied the entrance of women into the world of office work also made it possible to change skin color and, for S. Nengudi, remained a patriarchal straight jacket. If, like Revery-R, they are presented here as sculptures, these works also represent an invitation to action. In 1977, S. Nengudi embarked on this series under the title RSVP, a request asking an associate, usually M. Hassinger, to dance with the works. The result was a movement between struggle and celebration, where the forms resist, and are lengthened, warding off and summoning, turn by turn, frames, servitude, violence, sex, sensuality, skin, organs, and fertility.
In that period of emancipation, it must be remembered that gender equality was often left out of discussions about civil rights. In this respect, B. McCullough, who had always been attracted by dance and performance, chose a route which she thought better suited to her situation as a mother of two children, and a student. Adopting photography and film, she would become one of the central figures of the “L. A. Rebellion”, a movement of young black filmmakers hailing from UCLA. The film Water ritual #1: an urban rite of purification (1979), which she made in 16mm, was a collaboration with the performer Yolanda Vidato about the way in which black women fight to hang on to their spiritual and psychological space through symbolic acts of improvisation. Shot in a part of Watts which had been emptied to make way for a freeway project which was subsequently abandoned, it is hard to imagine that the action could take place in the heart of Los Angeles, in a contemporary time frame. The performer Y. Vidato strolls about, and comes into contact with the earth. Gradually taking possession of the space and her naked body, she ends up urinating in the midst of the ruins. B. McCullough thus included the performer in a genealogy of African cosmological figures focused on the use of water, and suggested that liquid works like a symbolic purification of the putrid and oppressive environment.
Ritual is also the object of the video Shopping bag spirits and freeway fetishes (1981). In it we see S. Nengudi and a few images of her mythical performance Ceremony four Freeway Fets (1978). Because B. McCullough’s camera did not work, it was Roderick “Quaku” Young’s photographs which were inserted into the montage. Performed by S. Nengudi and artists affiliated with Studio Z, that ceremony, made up of improvised dance, costumes and music, was held beneath a freeway bridge in a neighbourhood with a large Native American and Latin community, a kind of non-space with sparse vegetation. Keen for the work to have a power akin to “African fetishes”, S. Nengudi summoned her nylon sculptures like ritual objects. She placed them on the columns supporting the freeway, and had them carried by the performers, their forms and energies evoking differentiated genders; while D. Hammons and M. Hassinger, for their part, played the role of female and male spirits brought in by S. Nengudi, masked and possessed by a spirit unifying opposing forces.
Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space, 1981
Video (8’ extract)
Courtesy of the artist
Water ritual #1: an urban rite of purification, 1979
35 mm film transfered to video (6’)
Courtesy of the artist