Senga Nengudi, an African-American visual artist from Chicago, has teamed up with the Henry Moore Institute to have previous exhibitions displayed anew in a singular space here in Edinburgh. Her retrospective work includes peculiar materials such as nylon tights, vinyl, sand and newspaper sheets. Many of these works haven’t been seen since her original exhibitions. Her abstract work has been reimagined and brings to life her interplay of materials and bodily forces.
Walking into the gallery, you are instantly conscious of the vast space. The pieces are dispersed over two floors of the Fruitmarket Gallery. When you enter, the appearance of colour from these giant ice-pop-like nylon water cases catch your eye. To the left is a ground coated in sand and various splashes of colour. You may be thinking you’ve walked into a precursor to the summer, but alas, it is more socio-political than that.
To your right is the newspaper room, with walls overwhelmingly coated in broadsheets. This room, entitled Bulemia (1990/2018), was originally a collaborative piece with fellow artist, Charles Abramson. Historical newspapers have been used with buzzwords personally circled and highlighted with gold paint. These circled statements spell out uplifting affirmations such as “Find your magic,” “just hold on,” and “it’s time to come together.”
Upstairs, we leave behind these pleasantries with abstract pieces of nylon tied and stretched from the walls. The series, R.S.V.P., with its variety of coloured tights plays on issues of race and bodily function. They appear to be stretched beyond repair. Nengudi’s inspiration for this piece resonates in the birth of her first child, and much like nylon, her own body stretched and changed.
In Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1979) with its eleven print series and documentary, the nylon has been reimagined into knotted headpieces and masks. The figures, with their various instruments, are draped in nylon to convey both ‘male and female energy’ and their complementary performative roles in society. The African jazz blend of music enforces that spirit in the creation of a ritual-like ceremony. Nengudi’s wildly abstract pieces are highly emotive in the power of human energy.
Overall, the concept of Nengudi’s work is incredibly powerful. From the sixties, she was tackling ideas of modern body image and contortion. The fragile nylon and recycled newspapers bring to mind the use of a body and gravity’s eventual toll. With all that said, the gallery space and its overall execution of the exhibition leaves a lot to be desired. Situated beside the gallery’s cafe, you are never really liberated of public sound. These pieces are not wholly interpretable from image alone and the labels are not consistent at times. While Nengudi is very progressive in ideas, the space and her abstraction of concept appear a little disjointed.
Image: Carlos Finlay