With so much popularity surrounding social practice and artist responsibility, it’s timely to draw attention to issues experienced by artists who have children, and how they manage to balance their family and professional lives. Is there a stigma attached to artists who have kids in regards to how galleries, curators, collectors, and institutions view your time management skills? With so much emphasis on social responsibility in the arts, perhaps parenthood can be more clearly understood as an act of humanity in the arts.
I was in Denver recently and sat down with Senga Nengudi to talk about her early works, her experience with the feminist art world in 1970s Los Angeles, and how she negotiated the responsibilities of being a mother while being an artist. A lot has been written about Senga’s work but I wanted to hear more about how her experience as a mother informed her work and studio practice. We worked together on a show that I curated (and that she graciously agreed to be a part of), and I had the chance then to become more aware of her overall body of work.
Feminist tones are easily read in Senga’s work, but I wanted to know how about her experience in the 1970s Los Angeles feminist art world. Did she feel that feminism had been inclusive of women of color? Retrospectively viewing feminism’s failure to address the experiences of women of color isn’t new. Was there a breach in women’s collective experiences?
Her influence on younger artists like Clifford Owens for example, can be seen in a recent performance at MOMA PS1. Owens created a performance from one of Senga’s previous scores.
Continuing my trajectory of making cross-disciplinary influences more transparent, I’d been thinking a lot about dance and it’s influence in the performance art world. I’ve interviewed many performance artists who listed dance as an influence (in fact many of them had traditional art degrees) as they applied action to the body during performance. Senga too has a BA in Art and a minor in dance which perhaps is why she so easily finds rhythm in the autonomous body whether the body is sited in a wheelchair or on an urban street in 1970s Los Angeles.
Read on for the interview:
Interview with Senga Nengudi and Ellina Kevorkian on March 27, 2013.
Will you talk about your experience with the 70s feminist artist community at The Woman’s Building?
Superficially, I felt welcomed by feminism but felt feminism was disconnected from the Black and Latina experience, who namely, were bringing their children around with them. During the early 70s, I felt like a token - there for “color” - not on equal footing. I think so highly of artist Nancy Buchanan. The sense of privilege and entitlement weren’t there with Nancy. There was a sense of true collaboration, not the need to be in control at all cost.
How did having children influence your work?
Well basically as with most women, their first birth is quite something and I was just amazed with the flexibility of the body and how the body changed in so many ways, physically and emotionally. So when my first and second sons were born, that almost one’s body could go back into the same form, I really wanted to find a material that expressed that experience that I was going through. I had my own issues going on, you know, I was stressed, and all that kind of stuff. And as I looked at the stretching of the body, I also looked at the stretching of the psyche and how that really can stretch as far as possible, and come back into shape as well. So I just looked and looked and looked. I finally came upon the pantyhose. When I first started using it I tried everything. You know, there’s this issue in the art world, of it having permanence. I tried resin, and I tried glue but it just didn’t do it for me. Then I added the sand and it added the sensuality and the form of the body. Finally I just said screw it (archival permanence), I’ll go with the nylon mesh, pantyhose if it feels right to me. So it was triggered by my body’s changes, when I was pregnant.
How did you maintain being an artist and a mother at the same time?
It wasn’t easy. I think about Suzanne Jackson (a painter), she was the first black female in LA to have a gallery, Gallery 32. She also had a son about the same time. You know, we were trying to work it. We were being told to wait until we had raised our kids before having a full career. You know, we weren’t hearing that. I couldn’t see myself just waiting and not being my fuller self as a wife, mother, and artist. My husband has been totally supportive of me from the beginning of our relationship. 100 percent supportive. It would do an injustice to most of my friends who were single mothers, if I didn’t mention him. There’s a distinction between a woman having to hit it on her own and not having any support system, and having a husband. I want to honor him as well as honor my friends who were doing it on their own. So, I just managed it. I just did it. (laughs). I don’t know how we did it because everything was tight then. And that’s when these collaborations were so important. You know we could count on each other to be there. Filmmaker, Barbara McCollough was there for me always. I did this piece called Rapunzel. I just happened to pass on Arlington and (I think) near Pico, this Catholic school - all bricks - really beautiful school. And they had decided to tear it down and it had been in the community forever. I just happened to pass by and saw it and thought oh my god, this can not be! So I ran home and got some materials and I called Barbara and said you gotta come and take some photographs so we can document this moment. And fortunately she did, and that she was available. I went into the place while they were literally demolishing it. Behind me there was this little tower thing and I just stuck my head out, like Rapunzel out of a fairytale. So that’s an example of all of us being there for each other.
Did you ever bring your children with you on these site-specific projects?
Yes, most definitely. They were there. And that goes back to my (earlier) issue about The Woman’s Building. Me as a mother, I had to take them with me. And not only had to but wanted them to be with me to have those particular experiences.
Did you have family around that you felt you could rely on?
Yeah. My mother, my grandparents were alive at that point. And there was the family of friends, so to speak. So, it’s like we were all just there for each other. It was just how it was. The whole birthing thing from start to finish is just amazing and that’s what pushed me into making that work and then, it just evolved into other issues of the body. And it only seems like it’s more so today, this issue of un-satisfaction of the body, or body image, and all that kind of stuff.
Would you say that RSVP was directly about your children?
No, it wasn’t about my children. It was about the processes of the body. We as women experience things that men really can’t, in terms of physical body and what it adjusts itself to do, whether its your period or preparing for an entity to grow inside of you, these are things that a man couldn’t experience. So it was about the process.
Did you feel any negative stigmas attached to being a parent in the art community?
Oh yeah. And at that time, it was really there. There were really successful women artists at that time, and it seemed that most of them didn’t have children. I mean that it (not having kids) was a choice. And that was fine. But no one understands the actual experience of being a parent unless you have done it. Now, I feel like things have changed some. Men seem more willing to do more in the partnership. I’m still delightfully surprised when I step outside and see a man pushing a baby stroller along with having a baby strapped to his back. You didn’t ever see that when I was raising my kids.
Can you talk about the cultural influences on you while living in Los Angeles?
Back in the day when I lived near Adams and Western, on 24th street, there was an Italian villa (The Williams Andrews Clark Library) that had been donated to UCLA as an off-campus library. The villa was a stunning space, restricted to use by scholars only. However, anyone could walk the grounds and its magnificent gardens. It felt like you were going into another world. Across from it there was a Buddhist center and there was a small man in Buddhist garb who would go around the neighborhood, beating a drum.
What year was this?
1980s. I thought he was so courageous, this Japanese man walking through the neighborhood way down Adams, past Western. You would hear, BOOM BOOM BOOM! Sometimes because of traffic and street noise, you would only see the action of the beating of the drum. In my mind, it was a performance with significant meaning, spiritually and physically. It felt as though he was somehow blessing our neighborhood. That area was a significant influence on me - I grew up around USC. As an adult I lived further west off of Adams, in Sugar Hill. That area was really important. During its hey day it was where creative energy lived. It was an area where professionals and top entertainers resided, since at the time Beverly Hills had a color-code.Nellie Lutcher, the jazz musician lived there at one time, as did the Mills Brothers and Eric Dolphy.
Have you heard this album recorded in Dolphy’s parent’s Los Angeles house in 1954? Is this around the time you were in the neighborhood?
No. Marvin Gaye’s parents’ house where Marvin was shot was two blocks away. Black cultural history couldn’t have been more condensed than in that neighborhood. Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra had a rehearsal place on Western, just north of Adams. Barbara McCullough is just completing a documentary on Horrace Tapscott. The almost black Johnny Otis lived just off of Washington Blvd. Music and clubs, clubs and music.
I grew up listening to Johnny Otis on my mother’s kitchen radio. Like so many others, I’d assumed he was African-American. Thinking of rhythm and African traditionalist qualities in music, did you ever experience his voice apart from seeing him. Was there a moment before you knew his color, that you experienced the disembodied voice?
Actually even when I saw him I just thought he was Creole. Now I listen to KUVO, a jazz radio station out of Denver. I get to listen to it when I drive from Colorado Springs to Denver. You can only get it online in the Springs, but on the trip up, I can get it on the radio. Today I was listening to an amazing trombone solo of Amazing Grace. It wasn’t just jazz. Interestingly enough it seemed to blend, spirituals, rhythm and blues and southern soul. Historically in traditional African music, the drummers cued the dancers. They set the beat. They let the dancers know which spirit is present to be honored, experienced, channeled.The power of music in all its forms in Black culture is deep. With jazz, it’s about improvisation, where the known dissolves/evolves into the unknown; the collaboration between musicians stimulates the next musician to stretch higher. That concept is my guiding force.
What do you do to inform your creativity, now, in the studio?
I’ve been trying to stay in the moment. With my students, I give an assignment where they have to go out and be acutely aware of every sense. It’s enriching to engage all one’s senses. What it has to offer is new information. Sometimes by being in the present I feel like a super-person or super-hero with heightened abilities. I came to engaging the senses through smells! Which is difficult because smells can take you out. You inhale them and they can be so toxic that they can kill you. But then other smells can take you to states of euphoria and blissful memory recollections. I recently read a bestselling advertising book on how to sell a product. (Brand Sense by Martin Lindstrom) If you incorporate all the senses you have a better chance of gaining brand loyalty. For example,Coca-Cola has its’ trade mark bottle shape, distinct smell, and taste. It’s an issue of how we take senses for granted, at a subconscious level. The field of our experience is taken in on an unconscious level as society is becoming more and more numb.
Your body of work encompasses both still and active considerations of the body. Sometimes it’s performative motion and other times, your fixed sculptural pieces (like RSVP) can read as body parts that hold both stillness and allusion to movement. You’ve said that you interacted with those pieces, moving around them, manipulating them. Were others allowed to interact with the RSVP pieces or was it only you?
With those particular pieces it was just me. However there were times when I created pieces and applied materials on my collaborators with the request that they activate them through movement. Check out my website under collaborations or the website aapaa.org.
Are there other artists you feel address their own work with similar considerations of engaging the senses, drawing attention to the moment?
David Hammons is exceptional! He had a show at Ace Gallery, “Concerto in Black and Blue”, 2002. You entered a space with no light. It was pitch black. The walls were painted blue. When people came into the space, they were given tiny handheld keychain type flashlights to guide their way. It was a disorienting experience and the viewers had to engage all their senses to center themselves and navigate their way through this cavernous space. It wasn’t until the lights hit the wall that they discovered that the walls were painted blue. As the flashes of light hit the walls they were in essence creating the piece through their own personal experience. It adds deeper meaning to the phrase “you had to be there.”
Are you familiar with Noah Purifoy’s work? He was in the Now Dig This! show at the Hammer. I love his work. He was Director of The Watts Towers Art Center when I was there in 1965. At that time I was also working at the Pasadena Museum. He was such a visionary! Some years after that he made the decision to leave Los Angeles and all that meant and moved to the desert in Joshua Tree. It is worth the time and the drive to make a pilgrimage there to see the massive body of work he created. It is there for public view. He’s the real deal! He wasn’t interested in playing the game. He was purely and truly an artist for art’s sake. He should have had a more significant present in PST (Pacific Standard Time, an initiative of the Getty where over 60 spaces focused on California art history. Now Dig This! was an exhibition of African American art produced in Southern California between 1960-1980, also a part of PST.)
As your older work is being celebrated and re-presented in a historical context, how do you feel about re-performing or re-performances in general?
The whole “re-” thing…there’s no way you can do it. You can’t recreate exactly a performance or even the headdress for the show we did together. The conditions are not the same that created the original piece. You bring something different to each performance - you have to let it go. Like the performance at MOMA (Kiss), you can bring a similar but not exact energy, so we just decided to do our own thing.So yes, I’m philosophically opposed to EXACT re-performances given for historical consideration.
Going back to Now Dig This!, would you have framed any differently, the African-American works that were in that exhibition?
That’s a good question. I think Kellie Jones did an excellent job dimension-jumping from one realm to another, and sensitizing people to all the different issues and themes those artists were dealing with at the time. She set a really good foundation for those works to be experienced. Kellie just won the “Best International Thematic Museum Show” this year for ”Now Dig This.” It is a true crowning moment.
When you describe engaging all the senses, being present, I hear the same rhetoric of being in the moment used in theater and other creative processes.
Yes! Acute presence is a Buddhist and even Christian concept. These ideas I have about being present and engaging the senses…they’re ideas. There are always ideas up there in the air that at any given moment, the same idea is plucked down by a number of people.
You’ve spoken about having some training in Dance; do you keep up with contemporary dance?
Oh yes. You know I was so upset when Pina Bausch died. I loved her work and when she died I was like, why did you go and do that? But I don’t think she was one to hang around just to be hanging around. She was all about the work. I find dance really exciting right now. I’m excited about this pedestrian kind of dance where any body can move and that every human being has the ability to dance. The way each person moves through the world is completely unique. It so fascinates me! Just for the joy of it spend a day observing folks in motion as well as yourself. Who needs a stinking stage to see a concert! Smile. The other day I was on YouTube feeling so moved by videos of dances by wheelchair-bound dancers. Ah inclusion. It gives permission to us all to experience the joy of movement. That does not diminish the poetry of a skilled, trained dancer/choreographer or dance company at their best; such as Trisha Brown, Alvin Ailey or Pina Bausch. In fact, it heightens that experience.
Having some dance background and making performances that embody movement and energy, could you see incorporating more dance in upcoming works?
Oh yes. I was so pleased to be in that most amazing Dance/Draw show curated by Helen Molesworth.
I hear from your responses a recurring theme of autonomy and the body from Noah Purifoy, who removed himself from the business of the art world, the Buddhist who wandered the neighborhood beating the drum alone, and the private experience of wandering the library grounds. But also tradition features in your work. Are there any other arts that you feel embody a similar experience?
That’s a good question. I love outsider/folk arts. They have a different set of rules. There’s the removal of ego, again a Buddhist principle. They’re doing what they are driven to do, called to do. Toni Morrison said she doesn’t bother to write or succumb to the outside pressure to write until she’s “moved” to write. She doesn’t bother until the story and the characters will not be denied and force their way out. These artists create when they have the spirit, and evolve in their own way. They’re not concerned about being a part of any system.
and on the use of tradition in your work…?
I save letters friends send to me. And then at significant times, I send them back - key ones that tell a tale. Talk about Blackmail…”girl, I saw Johnny today - he looked so fine…” (laughter) It’s giving a gift. With RSVP, I was responding - wanting an interaction. I love an artwork when it draws me in. Such as Aboriginal paintings of dream walking- there’s rhythm and communication between the artist and whoever looks at it. I like art best when I’m mesmerized and drawn in and an exchange happens. It’s like intercourse. When art and viewer are engaging and have an exchange of energies, it’s like a third thing happens (like a child). There is a part of the viewer that opens and their own original/creative thought is generated. They (the viewer) are somehow different, moving forward.