Individual Collective: A Conversation with Senga Nengudi
In a wide-ranging conversation with curator and Side by Side co-editor Allie Tepper, artist Senga Nengudi discusses the evolution of her artistic practice in the context of collective practice and exchange. Together, they discuss Nengudi’s work with the LA-based collective Studio Z, her decades-long collaboration with artist and friend Maren Hassinger, and her many performative experiments with musicians, dancers, and visual artists of the avant-garde. Central to their discussion is an examination of how artistic networks forge systems of support and visibility during periods of civic injustice and institutional neglect.
Allie Tepper, “Individual Collective: A Conversation with Senga Nengudi,” in Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020). https://walkerart.org/collections/publications/side-by-side/individual-collective-a-conversation-with-senga-nengudi
For artist Senga Nengudi, art has always been relational. In her practice, material is inseparable from movement, and inevitably shaped by contextual forces and figures. Nengudi, who has been making work for over five decades, is celebrated today for her seminal R.S.V.P. series (1975–present). In these ongoing experiments, pantyhose are filled with sand to stretch like skin, expressing resilience and the wear that the body—particularly the black female body—endures in an often exhausting and unjust world. As the title R.S.V.P. suggests, the works invite participation, engaging not only the conditions of the environment in which they are installed—tethered across walls, floors, and ceilings—but also with select respondents like artist Maren Hassinger, who lovingly unhinge them in the improvisatory making of a dance. The iconic series reveals a key tenet of Nengudi’s practice: that collaboration is essential both as a vehicle for experimentation, and in the formation of artistic networks and platforms of support that would not otherwise exist.
The mutual dependence that we see performed in R.S.V.P. has existed in many configurations and moments across Nengudi’s life and work. Many of her key alliances and collaborations were developed between the 1960s and the 1980s, while Nengudi was living in Los Angeles, the city where she was raised. During this period of heightened racial and economic inequality, spatial segregation, and civil unrest in the city, a clear neglect of black artists by institutions helped to catalyze the formation of the loosely organized collective Studio Z. Nengudi was a key member, working alongside artists including RoHo, Joe Ray, Franklin Parker, Houston Conwill, Kathy Cyrus, Ron Davis, Greg Edwards, David Hammons, Duval Lewis, Barbara McCullough, and Roderick Kwaku Young. The group, which was officially incorporated in 1976, worked primarily out of a former dancehall at 2409 Slauson Avenue—a building once owned by Hammons—which functioned as both a studio space and venue unto itself. At what was coined “The Studio,” many members of the collective pursued their individual work, while hosting cultural events and concerts by peers, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Horace Tapscott. In the early ’80s, after Studio Z dissolved, Nengudi was part of an unofficial quartet that included artists Houston Conwill, Maren Hassinger, and Franklin Parker. Together, they staged impromptu performances across public sites in the changing landscape of Los Angeles and planned events at art centers when sponsorship allowed.
Meanwhile, on the east coast, the black-owned gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM) in New York became one of the few art spaces to showcase Nengudi’s work. In addition to including her in several exhibitions, Linda Goode Bryant—the gallery’s visionary founder and director—created platforms for artistic exchange through which Nengudi was able to riff with now-legendary musicians and dancers of the avant-garde including Butch Morris, Cheryl Banks-Smith, Yasunao Tone, and Blondell Cummings. While being consistently interdisciplinary, many of Nengudi’s collaborations were significantly cross-cultural, despite the propensity of scholars and museums to silo practices by both identity and medium. These exchanges are exemplified particularly through her work with the Rudy Perez Dance Troupe, and with artists including Ulysses Jenkins, May Sun, and Nobuko Miyamoto. Arguably the longest and most profound of Nengudi’s many collaborations is her ongoing dialogue with artist Maren Hassinger, a creative relationship that stretches over five decades. Like Nengudi, Hassinger’s work bridges the disciplines of installation and dance, and their work together has persisted and continued to evolve across geographies and time.
In March of 2019, I sat down with Nengudi near her home in Colorado Springs, CO, to talk about the history of her visionary and singular work in the context of her many collaborations with artists, musicians, and dancers of the avant-garde. A central theme of our discussion was the power of artistic networks to create systems of support and visibility in periods of injustice and institutional neglect. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Allie Tepper: I wanted to talk a bit about the evolution of your work—which spans the disciplines of installation and performance—in the context of collective practice and exchange. At many points in your trajectory as an artist you created work with your peers, whether through the collective Studio Z, impromptu performances with musicians and dancers of the avant-garde, or your decades-long collaboration and friendship with artist Maren Hassinger. There’s a very rich history here and a lot of ground to cover, but to start I was wondering if you are able to trace the earliest moments when you began working in dialogue with others? Was there a first kindred spirit that led you to working this way?
Senga Nengudi: That’s a really interesting question. When I was in college, I was able to secure two part-time jobs: one was at the Watts Towers Arts Center, and the other was at the Pasadena Art Museum. They were both very energized places at that time. The Watts Towers Arts Center was kind of collaborative in the way that we taught. Then at the Pasadena Art Museum, in the middle to late ’60s, there were all these really exciting artists like Jim Dine and Jasper Johns there, and happenings were occurring. That was the first time I had been exposed to that, and I was so excited because I could see with happenings that you could do things that were kind of like side-interests: you weren’t fully talented in it, but if you played the violin, if you danced, if you did whatever, you could incorporate that into your performance. I really liked that idea of layering materials as well as actions. So that’s what really stimulated me.
Fast forwarding a bit, I was chosen as one of the artists in the CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] program. It was supposed to be the 1970s version of the WPA [Works Progress Administration], where they hired artists to do public works. That’s where I really met Maren. Although I had seen her work before, that’s when we officially met and became friends because we had similar interests. We were visual artists, sculptors, and also shared an interest in dance and movement. There were about eight or ten of those artists that did works around town, and I was one of them. Out of that group there was kind of a camaraderie that formed—we just immediately connected. At the same time David Hammons was in town—he hadn’t moved to New York yet—and he had a really amazing space, amazing. You’ve heard of it?
AT: Yes, the place on Slauson Ave in Los Angeles?
SN: Right, it was like an old-fashioned 1940s dancehall, like you’d see in a war movie. It’s this big dancehall up top, and then at the bottom there were little storefront businesses, which at that point housed other artists and studios.
AT: Interesting. Did Hammons run the businesses?
SN: No, he didn’t run them. The landlord or whomever gave them the space did. The layout was that David had the dance studio upstairs and then other artists who would become part of Studio Z, like RoHo and a couple of other people, were in those downstairs studios. I knew David from way back when, and he was still trying to make up his mind about New York. So when he was traveling to New York, he let me use his studio. When he finally moved there later, I got my own studio, which I let him use when he came back to LA. Anyway, that’s kind of how it worked. There was this grouping of people that was just naturally there, we just got together. It was a very loose situation. We called ourselves Studio Z but we all had our own individual practices. We didn’t have a secretary. It was very loose and fluid.
I had been doing private performances in my studio because I was very shy and I really could not even handle the concept of being in front of an audience. But with this public artwork I did under the freeway in LA through CETA, I really wanted to celebrate it with a ceremony acknowledging its presence in the space. That’s when I asked a lot of these people to come and help me and be in it. Everybody brought who they were, I guess on a secondary level. A lot of artists became musicians, and myself, David, and Maren became dancers. It was like that.
AT: This is Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978), right?
SN: Yes. There were a lot of people involved with that, but after that, we broke into smaller groups so to speak. Maren, myself, and Ulysses Jenkins, and our friend Franklin Parker started working together—with Houston Conwill as well. Houston wasn’t there that long, he moved to New York because everybody was moving back and forth at that point. At first, it was myself, Maren, Houston, and Franklin.
AT: This is after Studio Z?
SN: Yes. After the Studio Z show at the museum in Long Beach, we shifted a bit. We were all friends, but there just seemed to be this camaraderie between the four of us. We would go to different places around the city and just do impromptu performances or concepts. The main thing with all of us, which is I think the truth about performance anyway, is that being an artist is a solo experience in your studio and so on. So when you are collaborating with others it gives you a chance to expand, and if nothing else, to be social, I guess [laughs]. It allows you to really expand your thinking and to be affected by what other people are thinking. You are really expanding your practice and stimulating yourself. That was a really important thing for me to do.
AT: Going back to Maren, I read an interview between her and the curator Lowery Stokes Sims recently, in which Maren made this really striking statement. She said: “I was never part of a dance company until Senga and I started working together. Then we became the dancers that we always wanted to be but couldn’t, and it really affected the work that we make still.”Lowery Stokes Sims, “Maren Hassinger,” BOMB, September 25, 2018, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/maren-hassinger-1/.
SN: It’s so true. Both of us were longing to be dancers, in every sense of the word, but I think we were able to be more memorable this way than we would have been as a nondescript part of a dance company. I really agree with that.
AT: It’s interesting because you also shared dance training: you both worked with the Lester Horton company in Hollywood, where you were taught by principal dancers who went on to become founding members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Then later you both worked with choreographer Rudy Perez through the Art Moves workshops at Ulysses’ space, Othervisions Studio. There were these different companies and movement languages that you were both embedding yourselves in, but then when you found each other you formed something else.
SN: Right. It’s really true, and for me it’s better, because the movement came out of another place and it wasn’t restricted by a normal contemporary dance vocabulary. We were able to go outside of that. That was really important for both of us.
AT: How would you describe what you do together in terms of movement?
SN: Well, we’ve done so much over the last forty years together. We have our separate practices as well. She was kind enough to be the first R.S.V.P. activator in 1977, interacting with the piece. I also worked on some of her performances. It was different, our concepts are a bit different. That’s how we worked.
AT: There weren’t really many artists at that time who were working both in sculpture, installation, and performance in this way—let alone together. You forged new ways of working that dance companies and most visual arts platforms could not enable or accommodate.
SN: Right, yes. We made a tape of our work called Side by Side (2006) a couple of years ago. We wanted to let people know that we’ve been doing this for a while. I think we are the only two women—two black women—to work in this way. I think the male equivalent who got a lot of play was Bob and Bob—are you familiar with them?
Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger, excerpt from Side by Side, 2006, video. Courtesy the artists and the African American Performance Art Archive, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
AT: No, who are they?
SN: They are a pretty famous performance team. They’ve been acknowledged for their work together, but even though we’ve been working together under pretty extreme conditions for over forty years, we’ve never been acknowledged on a larger platform. We’ve done a lot of stuff, while enduring divorces and moves, and this and that. Maren was in Baltimore for a long time, she just moved to New York relatively recently. We both were caring for our parents at one point. Physically we were thousands of miles from each other, but we still kept the connecting link under these extreme conditions. We just kept pushing each other forward, knowing that we both were totally committed to art, and that kept us moving forward until there was a smoother road ahead of us.
AT: It’s been such a strong relationship, particularly as it has withstood disparate geographies and time. You moved to Colorado, she was in Baltimore…
SN: Right. We were both in Los Angeles, that’s of course where we met. Then I moved to Colorado, and she moved all the way across to the East Coast. Yeah, we withstood a lot.
AT: Those images of Maren performing with the R.S.V.P. series at Pearl C. Woods for the first time are so iconic. It’s interesting to look at that series in terms of collaboration because the title is saying “respond if you please.” It’s an invitation to interact, for an audience member or selected participant to become part of the project.
SN: Right, exactly.
AT: Was it through working with Maren that you developed the name for the series?
SN: No, actually I thought of the title first. Then the rest just fell into place that way. I definitely thought of the title first.
AT: The works have such an incredible energy in the way that they respond wholly to their environment. They charge a white cube space in a way that is really breathtaking.
SN: There is a performance that Maren did, in fact, it was our last—she was like, “I can’t do it anymore, I’m gaining weight. I’m not doing this” [laughs]. Anyway, she did it with me at White Cube in London, and it was just what I wanted. It was exactly, exactly what I was looking for. Do you know who Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are? It was sort of like that. It was like she was partnering with this sculpture. It was her dance partner.
AT: Like a duet.
SN: It was like a duet. It was kind of ballroom, but more elaborate than that. Sort of like when you are doing a dance, you have your partner and you are guided by your partner, the partner puts their hand on your back and they guide you. That’s kind of what I’m looking for, that each one responds to the other. From that, something even bigger happens.
AT: It’s almost like a system of support, too.
SN: Exactly, yes.
AT: That’s beautiful. I’d like to return to Studio Z for a moment, to clarify who was involved, and how you all chose to define yourself, and become formalized as a group. I heard Ulysses Jenkins say in a recent lecture that the “Z” stood for “zoo.” Is that true?
SN: I really don’t know. The “Z” would indicate the end, the last, the end of the alphabet, the ultimate, that kind of thing. I really don’t recall anything about the zoo. The group just happened, we just said: “Hey, why don’t we do this?” We sponsored certain events like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an important jazz group. We were very much into Sun Ra. So any time he came to town we would all show up. It was a group of people who had common goals and common thoughts about things, but that’s even misleading, because our common thought was more of an anarchistic kind of thought. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we all are girl scouts, we believe in this doctrine.” No, the doctrine was actually to just explore and expand yourself as much as possible.
AT: So, to my knowledge, RoHo, Franklin Parker, Barbara McCullough, Houston Conwill, and Maren were some of the other members. Is that right? The scholarship is a bit different everywhere on this.
SN: I believe Houston was in it, as well as Joe Ray, and RoHo was a really solid, central member. Then Mel Edwards’ brother, Greg Edwards was in it, as well as Duval Lewis, Ron Davis, and Kathy Cyrus. David Hammons has always been a loner. He was in it, but not of it, or he was of it, and not in it—that’s more like it. He was very much involved but he didn’t state that he was an official member. Maren did some things with Studio Z, but was not officially a part of it.
AT: Were you making work together as Studio Z, or were you more focused on hosting events in the Slauson Avenue space? Did the group actually make work collectively?
SN: No. Actually, I’m trying to think if there were any other performances that were done.
AT: Ceremony for Freeway Fets is one.
SN: Yes, that’s one, but I’m not sure if there was another one in which we all participated. I really am not sure. Maren and I did a performance another time, but it wasn’t recognized. It was at the Long Beach Museum for a Woman’s Building exhibition in the early ’80s. We were protesting because Maren was in the show, but there were no other black women in it. I think they might have had one Asian-American artist, I’m not sure. That was it. I don’t want to go into the Woman’s Building, but they had a certain way of doing things. It wasn’t, shall we say, all inclusive? So we stood outside—did Maren tell you this?
AT: No, I read a little bit about it in one oral history that you did. It’s been barely written about, and now just exists in rumor, I feel like. There is no documentation of it either.
SN: Right—it’s become an urban myth because we didn’t have anybody take photos. I’m fanatical because performance is so immediate that there needs to be documentation, but in that instance there was nobody to take pictures. So we stood in front of the entrance with sheets over our heads. We had a variety of symbolic products like Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix and that sort of thing. We held those. The title of the piece was Spooks Who Sat by The Door (1983). I don’t know if you are familiar, but there was a book with that title. The issue is, you have a black person or a person of color in the front, but in the back things are still the same. It’s a façade. That’s kind of what we were playing with. But they didn’t acknowledge us.
AT: So it was a renegade performance in the end?
SN: Yes, exactly.
AT: It wasn’t the first performance in which you’ve cloaked yourself either.
SN: Oh it’s true. It comes from my shyness, and that whole thing of doing performances in my studio without anybody seeing me and so on and so forth. It’s also something that I’m looking at culturally: the way someone shields their face in certain cultures and what that means ceremoniously, spiritually, and so on.
AT: Right, there can be a shamanic or spiritual element to it as well. When you obscure your vision you are tapping into the body in a different way.
SN: Exactly. It’s like with Freeway Fets when I had that mask on—that was the first time I really had that mask on during a dance—and I was gone. It was like another experience, another being, another whatever was occupying my body. There is a great amount of…
SN: Yes, freedom, because you are letting go of your own ego and you are allowing something else to come through you.
AT: There is a ritualistic element to this, too, and in all these collaborations. The filmmaker Barbara McCullough, who documented Ceremony for Freeway Fets and many of your other performances, made an important film on this subject that explores the role that ritual played in the life and work of nine LA-based artists—yourself included.
Senga Nengudi speaking about the meaning of ritual in the documentary film, Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space, 1980. The film was written and produced by filmmaker Barbara McCullough, a frequent collaborator of Nengudi's and member of Studio Z. Courtesy Barbara McCullough and Third World Newsreel. To access the full documentary, visit here.
SN: Very much so. Yes.
AT: In the work you did with Studio Z, you were meeting mainly at the place on Slauson Avenue, which was a venue unto itself, seeing as it was a former dancehall. But the performances that you would do out in public locations across Los Angeles weren’t done with Studio Z, aside from Freeway Fets, correct? Those were works that you did with the smaller, unnamed quartet?
SN: Yes, we would go up to Griffith Park and places like that, or we would sneak into The Greek Theater when there was no one around and use the stage. That was mostly Houston, myself, Maren, and Parker.
AT: Did you share a common impulse or desire to comment on the changing landscape in Los Angeles?
SN: In a sense, yes, but we also just wanted to find places that interested us. Each one of us would come up with a concept that we wanted to play with. It’s almost like together we had access to built in material or performers, so if there was something in your head, you would have the people to help you see what that looked like.
AT: So none of these were ever really done for an audience, they were more spontaneous and done for the camera?
SN: Yeah, but some of them were. We would go to Exposition Park, the Rose Garden, and so on, and talk about stuff, and then we’d formalize these experiments into performances in different places. For instance, Houston got us a gig at a printmaker’s place, sponsored by the Printmakers Association. Then we did something at Los Angeles State University. Then of course in Santa Barbara. We often did these performances for openings. One of us would be in an exhibition, and then for the opening we would do a performance. Maren had a solo show in Santa Barbara, and that’s where we did Dance Card (1986). That was Maren, Ulysses, and Parker, and I did the choreography and the concept.
AT: There was also Flying (1982), right? Did you choreograph that one?
SN: Oh yes, Flying. That was for the opening of a show at Barnsdall Park. That was fun, great fun. We all worked on that, and we each did our separate thing. Ulysses had a full segment of what he wanted to do, and so did Parker. Maren’s concept was to project nature and birds on our bodies. We all wore white, and became the projection screens. Then Ulysses had quite an elaborate idea. It was supposed to be about time, the beginning of time to now or something [laughs]. It was really long. He had a woman there who was a trumpeter, and he and Parker did a complicated thing with the TV set, because Ulysses is a video artist. It was quite elaborate. I’ve forgotten what Parker did, but I did something with slats. So, we all contributed, and that was basically always the case, that each one of us would come with a concept that we wanted to flesh out.
AT: Were these collaborations always non-hierarchical in terms of the way they unfolded, or were there performances you did where one person rose as a leader and directed the project? Ceremony for Freeway Fets, for instance is thought of as your work, rather than being authored by the group.
SN: Right, because it was my concept, and I also did all the costumes, except for David’s. An equivalent situation would be a performance that Maren directed at Los Angeles City College called Voices (1984). She asked a group of us to be in that, maybe six of us. She was the conductor, and it was totally her piece: she explained it to us, she wanted us to do this and that.
AT: I wanted to talk about the lack of support from institutions which you touched on earlier with Spooks Who Sat by The Door, and how this was pretty profound for black artists, and all artists of color, and for women of color in particular. This lack of support was of course symptomatic of larger problems within society of spatial segregation, economic disparity, racism, and gender inequality. On the whole, would you say your collaborative projects developed in direct response to these conditions?
SN: Sure they are connected, but I wouldn’t call it a response necessarily. I was talking to my friend the other day about the justice system, and I said “it just is.” That is certainly what it was then, it was responding to the “just is” of the situation: this is what is, but that’s not going to stop us. We have stuff inside of us that has to be expressed. Even if the institutions aren’t recognizing us, we can’t let that stop us. We just have to go forward with what we are doing. That’s kind of how we looked at it.
It might be in the tradition of things in the South during segregation. So you had black doctors, black insurance companies, black banks, black baseball teams. You had to be independent, because you weren’t being served. It’s kind of like that. But we were bridging a couple of things, we weren’t just doing traditional black art—we were doing other stuff and we wanted to expand in as many ways as we could. And the issue about the museums, which was something that was really hard to stomach, is that you as a citizen are paying taxes. And you are not represented in the places that you are giving money to. That was a hard pill to swallow.
AT: Your work wasn’t figurative or didactic, like the work that many other black artists—especially artists on the East Coast—were doing. There were other collectives like Spiral, with Romare Bearden and Emma Amos. It was founded in the early ’60s, and formed in direct response to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They met regularly to discuss the role of the civil rights movement. Their collective work was different from yours in a way…
SN: Right, it was different. But even Emma Amos had a hard time because her work was abstract and a lot of people spoke negatively about her because of that—even within the atmosphere of Spiral. Their collective work was very specifically geared to support activist projects. Independently from Spiral, Romare Bearden co-wrote the first book on African American art history with Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993). When I was in college, they used H.W. Janson’s book, History of Art (1962). There were no people of color included in the book, and very few women. But Bearden changed that. He went about it very meticulously—because the book is thick—recording African-American artists and making sure there was a full background.
That was really important, because we weren’t getting this history elsewhere. In schools there was no mirror, there was no one to look up to, to compare yourself with. My early influences were white—Picasso, Miro, and so on. It wasn’t until I got involved with Studio Z and all of this that David Hammons became my hero. I also came to look up to Barbara Chase-Riboud. She was a little bit before us, but she’s a wonderful sculptor. And her story is so romantic—she moved to France and married a French guy. Mel Edwards was also someone who had really powerful work that was abstract but still had the energy of the culture. These people were really important to me. And Richard Hunt from Chicago—he was one of the first black sculptors that really made it on a national scale. At this point these were my heroes—I didn’t know anything about the Harlem Renaissance until I moved to New York.
AT: Returning to the question of institutional support, while most dominant institutions weren’t recognizing the work you did, there were other spaces that were. Not museums, but alternative, often black-owned, artist-run spaces. Can you talk a little bit about those places that did rise to the occasion? I’m thinking about places like Just Above Midtown (JAM) in New York, run by Linda Goode Bryant, or Suzanne Jackson’s Gallery 32 and Pearl C. Woods led by Greg Pitts out of a church in Los Angeles…
SN: Well, Linda Goode Bryant played a very important role. They honored her work at Frieze New York this year, and there’s going to be a show at MoMA about JAM. She’s finally getting her due. She approached the gallery like an artist would have. She was just as motivated as we were to figure out new ways of doing things. David Hammons introduced us, and she was really significant when I was trying to figure out how to handle the pantyhose in my R.S.V.P. series. I said, “Linda, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’ve tried dipping it in resin, I’ve tried dipping it in glue,” and so on. I was trying things out so that the objects would have that sense of permanence. But when I would do those things it would just totally destroy the pantyhose. So Linda said, “Screw it, just do it.” She was totally supportive of me embracing the ephemeral nature of the material.
AT: She used this term “contextures” to describe your work.
SN: Yes, but not just my work but a lot of people’s work. She wrote a book about it, called Contextures (1978).
AT: Right, she applied the term to artists like Mel Edwards, Betye Saar, and Sharon Sutton as well. The term described the work of abstract or conceptual artists whose practice was grounded in external phenomena, the larger context beyond the studio, in terms of both the materials and subject matter.
SN: Right. She had so many different programs and fostered a lot of collaborations as well. Bill T. Jones, David Hammons, and Philip Mallory Jones did a collaboration—because Linda put us in threes. I did a collaboration with Blondell Cummings, a choreographer, and Yasunao Tone, a musician who worked with John Cage and was an active participant in Fluxus. I did another with dancer Cheryl Banks-Smith and the musician Butch Morris, called Air Propo (1981). Linda arranged these collaborations, and she was also really interested in the business of art. She’s always been good at that. She had business workshops for artists. We did a program in her gallery called In Situ, where we worked through our process in the gallery, and people were invited to come in to watch us work. She invented anything she could possibly think of to engage people in having an immediate and direct interaction with artists and the creative process.
AT: These collaborative trios were set up by Linda, and often included artists who had never worked together before, correct? The title of your work with Yasunao and Blondell, Blind Dates (1982), seems to speak to Linda’s arrangements, and the improvisational nature of the platform.
SN: Yes, exactly. Then I was involved with another major collaborative effort when we started working with Ulysses, which was around 1981. Ulysses’s birthday and my birthday are just a day apart: mine is on the 18th of September, and his is on the 19th. We always call each other and so on and so forth, we have that connection. So we began working in Rachel Rosenthal’s space—she was the queen of performance in Los Angeles. She had a space that she allowed people to perform in, so Ulysses had this 24-hour performance there, called Dream City (1981). Maren, Ulysses, and I were in the space for 24 hours.
So, what happened is artists like Nobuko Miyamoto and various others would come in to perform, but we were the constants. It was pretty wild, very wild. It was important that when all this stuff was happening with the institutions, we as people of color were working together: Japanese, Chinese, Latino, and African American. We were actually working together, and that was really exciting, sharing our cultures.
AT: I feel like that cross-cultural exchange doesn’t get talked about a lot.
SN: Exactly, and I think it’s important for people to know that we could take care of ourselves, and that there were interactions between all of us. The art world tends to silo us off. For instance, one year an institution would have a show of Latino artists like Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation 1965–1985, and the next year it would show black artists. Then the next year if you were lucky, it might exhibit Asian-Americans. Really, really down the road it would finally show Native Americans. There is always this idea like: “We have to put you in a box here, and never the two shall meet.” But we did meet, and we did work together. I think it’s particularly unique to the context of Los Angeles, too.
AT: That’s really interesting. I was watching another one of Ulysses’s videos, Without Your Interpretation (1983) in which you can really see this cross-cultural exchange happening. I think you were working with the choreographer Rudy Perez at that time through a workshop called Art Moves. The artist May Sun was also in the group, and in the video you are all performing this twilight choreography in front of a wall at the Art Dock downtown. Patssi Valdez was involved too, from what I understand—she did your makeup or something, is that right?
SN: You know, I don’t recall, but we did have wild makeup, so it’s quite possible.
AT: It mentions her in the credits. And Patssi, of course, was part of Asco, the Chicano conceptual and performance art group. It started all melding to me, because she had done this gestural performance called Instant Mural (1972) in front of a wall in downtown Los Angeles, which echoes the choreography in this work. There is a shared language, and to know that she was also a part of this performance is really interesting.
SN: Yes. There was a lot of energy going on in California and in LA. All of these projects you’re mentioning were collaborative.
AT: All collaborative, all working in different sites across Los Angeles—and all without the support of major institutions.
Excerpt from Ulysses Jenkins’ Without Your Interpretation, video transferred to DVD, color, sound, 1983. Courtesy of the artist.
SN: Exactly. There were plenty of advantages to that. I think you brought this up before, but collaboration also equaled support. If we weren’t getting validation from the institutions, at least we were able to validate ourselves and each other. That was really important. Some people in our own separate cultures didn’t like what we were doing either. There is an artist here in Colorado named Daniel Salazar who I love, he has quite a sense of humor. He did a series challenging machismo, and he got death threats from his very own community. He had Zapata in a skirt. And oh my gosh, there is always that issue when you are an artist of color, that there are certain restrictions that are put on you by your own culture. That becomes really problematic, because you can’t do what you want to do, because they’ll say, “Oh well, you’re not forwarding the race. You are degrading us by your approach.” It really is quite a balance. That’s happened from almost the beginning of artists of color in this nation.
AT: Since 1998 you’ve developed several personas that you sometimes use to create art. Did the expectations that others placed on your work based on your race, feed into the development of these in some way?
SN: Well, the personas started when I came across a couple of African-themed cards in a bookstore. Initially, I thought “This is great!” I’m always looking for cultural things. Then I flipped them over to see that they were made by a white artist. My thinking immediately changed to: “Oh no, this is terrible. How could she do this? How dare she do this? How dare she take our culture?” As I thought about it more, however, I began to think that, “Hey, she can do what she wants.” I started to think about the expectations that we have based on an artist’s identity. When we see an artist’s name, we expect their work to look a particular way. When it doesn’t, it’s jarring. That’s when I thought I’d like to play with names. Since we—as black people—have been called everything in the book, why not name ourselves? That’s how these personas came about. When I’m using these different names, however, I don’t change my art at all. I just use that name, and then the viewer has to decide something, has to be active in the process of taking in and interpreting the work. That’s something that’s important to me, that there is an exchange that goes on between the viewer and the work.
AT: So you are kind of testing the audience in a way?
SN: Well, stimulating them to think outside the box, and maybe start a dialogue about how identity is perceived. My three personas are: Lily B. Moor, Harriet Chin, and Propecia Leigh. Propecia Leigh is my persona for photography and Harriet Chin is usually for drawings. I use Lily B. Moor when I’m writing. They each have personal meaning.
AT: It’s interesting that you assigned a different medium to each of them. In a way this use of multiple personas mirrors the ways you’ve collaborated in the past—working in trios with a dancer, and a musician, and so on.
SN: You’re right. I haven’t thought about it in that way before, but you are absolutely right.
AT: A lot of the activity that we’ve discussed happened when you were living in Los Angeles, where you had so much community around you. When you moved to Colorado, did you have to adapt your practice at all?
SN: I did. My husband had always wanted to leave Los Angeles. And for years, I said, “No, never.” Then after we had children, Proposition 13 was passed that cut out all funding for after school programs. After that, my thinking began to change. At first it seemed fine and there were no problems. Then all the gangs started really heavily developing. One year, we bought our sons two bikes for Christmas. The bikes were stolen immediately and our sons had their lives threatened. After that, I thought, “Maybe it’s time.” At that point I just felt like I had hit a wall in terms of the creative things I was doing. So I agreed to move.
We looked around Arizona, New Mexico, and all over the Southwest. When we finally got to Colorado in 1989 we really liked it. We had cousins that had just moved here. When you have some friend or a cousin that lives someplace then it’s easier, you see it through their eyes. Even so, it would be days before I would see another black person. It just blew my younger son’s mind, that supposedly there was no diversity. Now I know that other people of color were just kind of hiding out—there were other black people, Asian-Americans, and so on, living around us, but they weren’t very visible. I don’t know if it was a form of protection or what. Because of this lack of visibility, I really felt as though I needed to do something in this community, to have a presence, to show what I could do. Oddly enough, that same year, several other people of color moved here, and I became friends with some of the women. We said, “Let’s do African dance workshops. Let’s do this, let’s do that.” Just to have some kind of cultural literacy, where people could really get a sense of other cultures.
When I first moved here there was no pressure. It wasn’t like being in New York or LA where everyone is just looking over your shoulder, asking, “What are you doing now? When are you going to show that?” In Colorado, you could just work anonymously. Up until recently when the spotlight was shone on me, I’ve just used Colorado as a base. I do my work here, then I go to LA, Chicago, New York, or wherever. That’s how I’ve managed my life here.
AT: The work you are making now, do you still see it as collaborative? Or are you more focused on developing your individual practice at this point?
SN: Well, we’ve all kind of, I won’t say gone our separate ways, but we are all involved with our own separate practices. But I still feel that the energy is there. Ulysses and myself and Maren did some work recently at PS1 and the Hammer Museum, reperforming Kiss (1980). There are moments when we get together. It’s sort of like with true friends—you could not talk to one another for a year, and when you do eventually reconnect, you can just pick up where you left off. There hasn’t been a pause. But if the question is are we still collaborating, then the answer is not as much.
AT: I feel like your work is always open to those possibilities though—even your objects themselves.
SN: Absolutely. I want people to have a visceral experience with my work. I want them to feel. If they do that then the work can begin to develop a conversation.
AT: You had this amazing quote in the A.I.R. catalogue that came out in 2018 as part of their recent remounting of the 1980 show the Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States which included your piece Nuki-Nuki: Across 118th St. You said, “With an improvisational impulse, I gather and work my materials. The elements of my pieces are like individuals: fragmented, confused, straightforward, full, empty, misunderstood, frayed, titillating, bland, slick—radiating infinite possibilities, when combined with one another, this way and that.”Senga Nengudi, quoted in Dialectics of Entanglement: Do We Exist Together?, exhibition brochure, A.I.R. Gallery, New York, 2018, 18.
I loved that line. I felt like it really spoke to everything you do. On a related note, in your work with Studio Z, the only time that you presented your work together as a collective outside the Slauson Avenue space was in an exhibition at the Long Beach Museum in 1977. The title of that show was Individual Collective, which I think also captures this spirit.
SN: That says it all actually.
AT: Well, maybe we’ll leave it at that.
Allie Tepper is a curator, writer, and the Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow for Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center (2018–2020). Her curatorial practice bridges the disciplines of visual art and performance, with a focus on commissioning new work. She has held curatorial positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, SculptureCenter, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She is also the former Assistant Director of the magazine and arts venue Triple Canopy. Her recent exhibitions include Rabih Mroué: Again we are defeated (Walker Art Center, 2018–19), Derek Fordjour: Half Mast (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2018), Not for Everybody: Hadi Fallahpisheh, Baseera Khan, and Gloria Maximo (Simone Subal Gallery, 2018), Running Towards the Sun: Guadalupe Maravilla, Grace Rosario Perkins, & Efraín Rozas (Jack Barrett Gallery, 2018), and In Practice: Another Echo (SculptureCenter, 2018).
Senga Nengudi is an interdisciplinary artist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She has had recent solo exhibitions organized by Lenbachhaus, Munich (2019), the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (2018), Baltimore Museum of Art (2018), ICA Miami (2017), the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art (2015), and MCA Denver (2014). Her work has been included in numerous group exhibitions, many of which have traveled extensively, including the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern (2017); We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, Brooklyn Museum, New York (2017); Blues for Smoke, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2013); Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Museum Houston (2012); Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2011); and WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (2007). Nengudi’s work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, Hammer Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Studio Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Lenbachhaus, Tate Modern, and Centre Georges Pompidou.