“An entire exhibition could come out of one’s handbag.” This phrase, from the catalogue essay accompanying Senga Nengudi’s “Alt” (by professor of art history and African-American studies Kellie Jones) brings the idea of carrying around a spare pair of tights—or being prepared for any eventuality—to a new level. Jones is exaggerating, but against the large neutral walls of Bermondsey’s White Cube, there are certainly a lot of pantyhoses on display. Gussets stretched and feet weighted with sand, tied in knots, stuffed with padding, or stretched over found objects, Senga Nengudi has worked with discarded pairs of nylon tights, amongst other makeshift materials, in her “soft” sculptures since the 1970s.
Hers are the kind of “more than” materials that Los Angeles assemblage artist John Outterbridge, speaking in the political climate of California after the 1965 Watts riots, would have deemed: “not mere material but [...] material in the debris of social issues.” Nengudi was first affiliated with the Los Angeles-based group of artists Studio Z, with whom she instigated ritual performances with music and costume like Ceremony for Freeway Fets, which reclaimed a piece of land beneath a freeway. In her first solo exhibition in the U.K., she finds herself in some ways far from such marginal zones, as she occupies the minimalist gallery. But her language of textile sculpture, powerfully stretched at acute angles from the high ceiling to grow exacting, spindly roots down the wall, continues to speak of her own roots and place as a woman of color within the still-very-white art world.
The material of the pantyhose signifies the feminine and the corporeal—the synthetic fibers’ usual closeness to flesh, their prim covering of bare skin, with the sculptures’ occasional lumps and bumps as referents for curvaceous bums or pregnant bellies. It also embodies the radical reuse of daily objects for abstract art. The tan and dark colors, which no doubt came in packets with aspirational names like “Barely There” or “Slightly Sunkissed,” form a consistently earthy palette. The nylon fabric is flexible in both senses: in her extensive “R.S.V.P.” series, it is coerced into countless splayed shapes, from boomerangs in the corner of the room, to suspended sacs like trapeze artists’ torsos.
More than male artists’ appropriation of the stocking (like Bruce Conner’s assemblage sculptures, or more historically, Hans Bellmer’s surreal dolls), Nengudi owns the fabric and her forms. She also sometimes “wears” them, in performances where bodies weave and stretch between threads. These pieces have been compared as much to the costumes of the Yoruba’s Gelede dance ceremony—one of whose maxims is Eso l’aye (“The world is fragile”)—as to fiber-based art. Her awareness of the place of her body, or anyone’s body, in relation to the artwork, is tangible. Nengudi had to mark out her own space within the interwoven fabrics of ’70s feminism and black identities, and she continues to do so today.
“Alt” is on view at White Cube, London, Nov. 26, 2014–Jan. 18, 2015.