Acquisitions: Senga Nengudi Papers

By Erin Jenoa Gilbert

May 22, 2019

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. A version of this essay was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue (vol. 58, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/aaa/current.

Portrait of Senga Nengudi
Senga Nengudi, ca. 1978 (detail from contact sheet). Photograph by Adam Avila Photography.  Senga Nengudi Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

African American conceptual artist Senga Nengudi was born Sue Irons in 1943 in Chicago. In 1975 she adopted the African name Senga Nengudi. The Archives’ acquisition of her papers secures Nengudi’s legacy as a pioneer of post minimalism and performance art and as a political activist. The papers recount decades of experimentation with materials, as well as efforts to expand the expressive potential of sculpture and dance. They also chronicle Nengudi’s exploration of the exhibition possibilities for African American artists outside of traditional museum and gallery spaces.

Nengudi’s papers document her studies in both the US and Japan. They contain essays, term papers, sketches, and scores from her years at California State University, Los Angeles, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts with a minor in dance (1966) and a master of arts in sculpture (1971). In 1966–67, Nengudi studied Japanese culture at Waseda University in Tokyo. There she shifted her artistic focus from material and physical conditions to a more philosophical approach oriented toward the immaterial and metaphysical. She explored the relationship between time and space, lines and light, improvisation and choreographed movement, ritual and revolution. Representing her time in Tokyo is a Pan Am bag stuffed with airmailed postcards, letters, and stamped tags from boxes that passed through customs. The letters from her mother, her brother, and her beau, Elliot Fittz, kept Nengudi connected to racial tensions in the US at the time. 

Photograph of correspondence in Pan Am bag from the Senga Nengudi papers.
Pan Am bag filled with correspondence Senga Nengudi received while in Japan, 1966–67. Senga Nengudi Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The collection includes fifty-five diaries and journals dating from 1975 to 2011, eight undated journals, and thirty-nine annotated and illustrated day planners from 1985 to 2016. In her diaries Nengudi writes of the physical and psychological experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. It was the expansion and contraction of her body during the gestation and birth of her two sons, the papers suggest, that led the artist to create objects that embody the restrictions and resilience of women of African descent in the US.

Initially rejected by mainstream New York galleries and museums, Nengudi showed at Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown (JAM), which was the epicenter of African American avant-garde cultural production from 1974 to 1986. Nengudi had her first solo exhibition, Répondez s’il-vous plait, at JAM in March 1977. There she debuted the biomorphic sculptures that would become her signature output: nylon mesh panty hose that stretched in response to the movement of the female figure, were suspended in space, or were weighed down with sand. The papers contain a postcard announcement for this exhibition as well as documentation of the experiments with paper, plastic, and rubber that led to the RSVP series. Ten VHS tapes and seven cassette tapes document exhibitions and performances from 1976 to 1996, many of which feature Nengudi’s frequent collaborators Banks, Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Barbara McCullough, Butch Norris, and John Otterbridge.  

Erin Jenoa Gilbert is the curator of African American manuscripts for the Archives of American Art. 

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