Review: Senga Nengudi at the Henry Moore Institute

Published 21 January 2019

Sarah Kent reviews this small survey of work by the African-American visual artist for the winter issue of Art Quarterly.

Senga Nengudi makes sculptures using nylon tights. Sarah Lucas comes to mind, of course, but Nengudi began using pantyhose in the mid-1970s, when Lucas was still a schoolgirl. Nengudi was pregnant at the time and wanted to reflect the stresses and strains undergone by the female body as it expands to accommodate the unborn child. While Lucas parodies the fleshiness of the female form by stuffing her sculptures with the soft furnishings-filler, kapok, Nengudi adopts a less literal, more metaphoric approach.

As an African-American, she chooses tights ranging from black to tan to reference women of all races. Pinned to the wall and stretched to their limits in various configurations, they traverse the space as dynamic lines of extreme tension. Nengudi studied art and dance at California State University and, at first, she and fellow performers interacted with the work using the strength and elasticity of the nylon to hinder or enhance their movements. But in recent installations movement is implied rather than actual, and the toes of the tights are filled with sand that anchors the feet firmly to the floor.

This small survey is a welcome introduction to the artist who, despite being in her seventies, hasn’t shown before in the UK. Earlier work includes vinyl envelopes filled with coloured water that lie on the ground or flop over plinths like Minimalist abstractions that have given up trying to be heroic and, in subversion of the hardedged ideal, have gone soft – literally. More please!

Senga Nengudi is free to all and runs until 17 February at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

This review was originally published in the winter 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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