American trailblazing artist's work comes to Leeds

A major exhibition of the work of trailblazing American artist Senga Nengudi has opened at the Henry Moore Institute. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Senga Nengudis Bulemia 1990/2018. (Picture: Charlotte Graham).

You can guarantee that an exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute is going to make you think differently about things, and their latest show is no exception.

A major retrospective of the work of the trailblazing American artist Senga Nengudi, it is a thoughtful show that throws up questions about what sculpture is and can be and leaves you pondering on the spiritual, philosophical, bodily and human concerns with which the artist’s work is imbued. Born in Chicago in 1943, Nengudi has been at the cutting edge of sculpture for the past fifty years. A central figure in the African-American avant-garde scenes of New York and Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, she has consistently reinvented her creative practice by experimenting with material and form. All this is reflected well in the exhibition, curated by Laurence Sillars, Head of Programmes at the Institute.

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“Senga Nengudi had such an incredible impact on the trajectory of sculpture with her relentless experimentation,” he says. “It really changed the understanding of what the artform can do and say. I really wanted to create an expansive exhibition to give a broad overview of the major contribution she has made.” Nengudi studied dance and art at the University of California before going on to study sculpture and this can be seen in her work.

“The relationship between movement, the body and objects and how we interact with them has always been a central theme,” says Sillars. “The rhythms and freedom of dance have been a factor too.”

The show brings together Nengudi’s pioneering work from 1969 to the present. “Many of the works haven’t been seen in thirty or forty years,” says Sillars. “The water sculptures have not been shown anywhere in the world for nearly fifty years, so it’s very exciting to recreate them here.” The Untitled (Water Composition) pieces are made from transparent vinyl filled with coloured water; they rest on the floor, on plinths or are fixed to a wall. There are significant examples of work taken from Nengudi’s RSVP series for which she is probably best known and which she began in 1975. Made with nylon tights, they are stretched, knotted, filled with sand and then mounted on the wall. The apparent simplicity of these sculptures, which Nengudi has referred to as ‘abstracted reflections of used bodies’, is misleading, a lot of consideration has gone in to the composition and their meaning is profound.

She developed them when she was pregnant for the first time and they remain powerful images of the triumphs and traumas of the female body. “They are seemingly effortless but they have so much to say about fragility and tension, societal forces, what society expects of women and the pressure to conform,” says Sillars.

Another highlight of the show is Bulemia, a whole room installation made from newspapers sprayed with gold paint. “It was originally created in 1990 to convey the cyclical nature of news,” says Sillars. “In the Trump era it has a whole new set of messages.”

The commonplace materials Nengudi uses – paper, sand, water, plastic, nylon – makes her work eminently relatable. “She is interested in how materials have the capacity to transform,” says Sillars. “And how everything in life has the potential to be transformed.”

At the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until February 17, 2019. Free entry.