Sculpture and dance can seem somewhat at odds — one static and fixed, the other fluid and shifting. Western sculpture adopted an adversarial relationship to time long ago. Casting the human form in immutable bronze was a bid for immortality.
Dance, meanwhile, depends on changes to the form. If nothing moves, nothing happens. But the same movements that strengthen the muscles age the joints. The material of the body is inevitably changed as it explores space and time.
It is the dynamism of dance that this year’s Nasher Prize Laureate, Senga Nengudi, first tapped more than five decades ago to liberate new possibilities for sculpture. “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is the making of objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all,” she wrote in a 1995 artist statement. “This has never been a priority for me.”
Instead, improvisational and responsive interactions between participants and temporary sculptures characterize Nengudi’s practice. Four of her works are now on display at the Nasher, including one from her most celebrated series, Répondez s’il vous plaît. First debuted in 1977, the series invites fellow artists and dancers to interact with sculptures made of used tawny and chocolate-colored pantyhose weighted with sand.
Nengudi selected the unusual nylon mesh for its intimate proximity to the female body. “From tender, tight beginnings to sagging end … My works are abstracted reflections of used bodies,” she wrote in a 1973 artist statement.
Sculptures shaped like post-birth canals (R.S.V.P. XV, 1977) and distended umber breasts (Swing Low, 1977/2014) bring Black female bodies into art spaces that have historically refused our presence, undervalued our labor and denied our creative output. But when Black female dancers carefully activate the works, at times supporting the sculptures and then stretching them, their performances transform gate-kept galleries into dynamic spaces.
The Nasher Prize Jury grants the prestigious award and the $100,000 prize each year to a sculptor whose body of work illuminates the pressing issues of our time. Despite a major retrospective show in 2017 that toured Munich, São Paulo and Denver, widespread institutional recognition for Nengudi’s work is still overdue. A leader within the 1970s Black avant-garde, Nengudi articulated a vocabulary of Global Black abstraction that emphasizes experimentation and ritual, the use of accessible materials and collaboration. She continues to push sculpture beyond the bounds of the western tradition.
Today, the 79-year-old maintains her studio in Colorado, where her practice includes sculpture, performance, painting and poetry. Her receipt of the Nasher Prize follows wins by Doris Salcedo (2016), Pierre Huyghe (2017), Theaster Gates (2018), Isa Genzken (2019), Michael Rakowitz (2020), and last year’s recipient, Iranian-born German sculptor Nairy Baghramian.
Nengudi’s sculptures reference a diversity of bodies: Black wet nurses, a Harlemite suffering from drug addiction (Red Devil (soul 2), 1972) or the newspaper-lined clothes of a homeless man (Bulemia 1998). They illustrate how everyday materials can express the experiences of the exhausted and excluded. “I am concerned with the way life experiences pull and tug on the human body and psyche. And the body’s ability to cope with it,” Nengudi wrote in a catalog for a 1980 show. This emphasis on overlooked identities and labor connects Nengudi and former laureate Baghramian, who served on this year’s jury.
Both artists explore gender, labor and sculpture’s relationship to human form but use entirely different materials. Baghramian’s vocabulary tends toward a cerebral minimalism with unexpected moments of tenderness. Stainless steel, cast aluminum, pastel-colored marble and resin reference the architectural underbelly of the spaces we inhabit, from domestic and work spaces to museum galleries.
Nengudi is drawn to more mundane (and disposable) objects: used pantyhose, crumpled newspaper, tape, bubble wrap, sand. “Individual acts of art do not have to depend upon the permanence of materials, only the permanence of the soul,” she wrote in 1993. These everyday, inexpensive materials — many of which had previous lives in our drawers and closets before finding their way into Nengudi’s sculptures — are reservoirs of tactile memory. The materials she uses are so sensorially charged that the urge to touch her works becomes almost irresistible.
By placing objects behind barriers to preserve the work, museums thwart visitors’ relationship to objects even as they present them. But this is what makes Nengudi’s work not only dynamic but subversive. She uses viewers’ visceral relationship to the materials to lead them to question whether this mediated, hands-off approach is the only way to engage with sculpture.
Nengudi and contemporaries David Hammons and Maren Hassinger were among the Black abstractionists of the early 1970s who had grown fed up with Eurocentric ways of making and presenting art. They formed the collective Studio Z shortly after the Watts Uprising, creating Black and multi-ethnic environments to explore new methods of making.
For her postgraduate studies, Nengudi traveled to Japan, where she was fascinated by the cultural emphasis on ritual. She also became familiar with the Gutai Art Association. She found in their collaborative experiments social elements that brought everyday life into the studio and made artmaking a shared experience. She identified a similar sensibility in African dance ceremonies, which also incorporate performance with sacred objects such as votives and masks to unlock dynamic energies.
Shared ritual is at the root of Nengudi’s artistic practice. Poet Kevin Severin defines ritual as “reestablish[ing] the relationship between people, places, and things.” Nengudi does precisely that, inviting new participants to engage with the objects she makes and by tempting viewers to assert their own agency within the gallery space. Her sculptures are free to be used and used up in the service of connecting. They can always be recreated later. The pantyhose and plastic are not so precious. All that’s needed, as Nengudi says, is “permanence of the soul.”
Senga Nengudi will receive her Nasher Prize at an awards gala April 1 at 7 p.m. at the Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora St., Dallas. Nengudi will speak about her work March 31 at 12 p.m. at the Nasher. Her work is on display at the Nasher through April 30. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students and teachers, and free for children younger than 12. For more information, visit nashersculpturecenter.org.