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Senga Nengudi wins the Nasher prize for sculpture

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The Nasher Sculpture Center announced Wednesday that Senga Nengudi, an artist whose bizarre sculpture — incorporating nylon pantyhose and other found objects — has been exhibited at museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, is the 2023 recipient of the Nasher Award. Nengudi is the first black woman to receive this honor, which was established by the Dallas Museum in 2015 as a way “to honor a living artist who elevates understanding of sculpture and its possibilities.”

Previous recipients of the prize, which is unusual in its international scope and focus on sculpture, include artists such as Michael Rakowitz, who is known for reproducing looted Iraqi artifacts, and Doris Salcedo, who conducts interviews with survivors of violence that inspire haunting conceptual ideas. sculptures. The prize comes with $100,000 and is followed by programming focused on the artist’s work, including gallery exhibitions and talks, leading up to a gala in April.

Doris Salcedo used 15,000 needles to portray the pain of gun violence

Nengudi’s multidisciplinary practice – which includes sculpture, performance, dance, photography and film – defies convention and brings art down from the ivory tower. In the name of art, the 79-year-old performed a ritual dance under a Los Angeles freeway overpass in “Ceremony for Freeway Fets” (1978). She hung “cloth spirits” in flag cloth fire escapes in Harlem to capture what she called the “souls within” people she saw on the street. Above all, she transformed worn tights, sometimes filled with sand, into tactile and visceral meditations on the female body. (She once said she could fit an entire exhibit in her purse). Her work, which spans more than half a century, has crossed feminist and black arts movements.

At a time when women’s rights are being actively curtailed, Nengudi’s signature pantyhose sculptures span the walls of the museum with renewed boldness and resonance. They are suspended, elongated, twisted and knotted, taking an object that was created to reshape women’s bodies to meet expectations and turning it on its head, pointing to the sagging, bloated and bulging body parts that so many have been conditioned to despise.

Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher, said in an interview that Nengudi stands out for its pioneering collaborations, which often blend dance and performance art with sculpture; its use of humble materials installed in accessible spaces; and his way of approaching social issues that remain topical today.

“In recent years, the extraordinary creativity of the black artistic community – which in the 70s and 80s was in many ways marginalized – is now recognized. And so it occupies a critical place in the history of black arts but also of art, period,” he said. “At a time when women’s right to control their bodies has been taken away, she is an artist whose exploration of female identity through works made with pantyhose speaks with great power and relevance.”

The idea for Nengudi’s tights, collectively known as “RSVP”, came to her after giving birth to her first child. “I was looking for materials that reflected the female body,” she told curator Elissa Auther in an oral history for the Archives of American Art. “And then, finally, I found the pantyhose. Right after that, I was like, “Wow,” because the whole experience of childbirth – you expand and then all of a sudden, after it’s over, you contract, and your body recovers in shape. I really wanted to somehow express that experience.

Nengudi’s work has long been intimately linked to the body. As a student at California State University, Los Angeles (now UCLA), Nengudi, born in Chicago as Sue Irons, studied both dance and art, knowing that a career in the dance would necessarily be of short duration and that she would need something. to do next. Her experience working in arts education at the former Pasadena Museum of Art (now the Norton Simon Museum) opened her eyes to how art and dance could coexist: the museum had its own dance department and educators danced in front of artwork as a teaching tool. for kids.

In a statement announcing the award, National Gallery of Art curator Lynne Cooke – one of the Nasher Prize jurors – addressed a party of what makes Nengudi’s work so impactful. “The fact that she works with these everyday mediums that had no history in sculpture and were of little value is something that means a lot to young artists as well as to a wider audience. “, wrote Cooke.

Early in her career, Nengudi was drawn to what she called the “non-craft” of artists such as Paul Klee, and volunteered in experimental black-centric arts education programs at the Watts Towers in Los Angeles — massive sculptures made of found objects. In the 1960s, she became so fascinated by Gutai – a radical Japanese art movement in which artists rolled in the mud, half-naked and painted canvases with their feet – that she moved to Japan. There she came to appreciate the way Japanese aesthetics embraced simplicity and imperfection, and she studied Noh and Kabuki theater, which she praised for combining different artistic media.

When Nengudi finally returned to Los Angeles, she founded Studio Z, a black art collaboration, and worked alongside David Hammons and Maren Hassinger, who often took part in performances in which Hassinger danced among the sculptures of Nengudi.

Based in Colorado Springs, Nengudi has been celebrated in retrospectives at major museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum. New York’s Dia Beacon has an exhibition of her work scheduled for February.

But museums and awards, which seek to commemorate and commemorate, are in some ways antithetical to the spirit of Nengudi’s work – at least according to Nengudi. “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is to make objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all,” she said. “It was never a priority for me. My goal is to create an experience that will vibrate with the common thread.