A.C.Q. 1 by Senga Nengudi
Senga Nengudi talks about the connection between culture and identity, as well as the limitations they pose, in performance art and in using nontraditional art materials.
Identifying with art goes beyond representation. Not only do various cultures need to be reflected, but viewers also need to be able to expand on ideas of identity. Art nurtures the spirit and provides ways of rethinking that allow students to develop their own sense of self.
- This how-to facilitation guide (includes information on theme and individual artworks, links for background research, and video demonstrating the art project)
- Links to high-resolution images of the artwork
- Teaching slides with condensed information and discussion questions: Elementary and Middle/High School
- The Balancing Act of Personal and Universal
- Slide 2
- About the Artist
- About A.C.Q. I
- Activity Extension
- Your Turn
- What is Performance Art?
The Balancing Act of Personal and Universal
Art sometimes originates in personal experiences. Everyone has unique personal and cultural experiences. However, art also can address universal artistic, political, and/or social ideas. Artists often draw on personal stories, experiences, and feelings when creating art. And this art, when presented to a larger audience, often invites or challenges the viewer to connect with those stories, experiences, and feelings.
Viewers will also interpret those stories, experiences, and feelings with their own unique perspective. Both as viewers and as makers or artists, we must ask ourselves–how do we look inward and outward simultaneously?
Visual art communicates with people in a way that seems to speak to the human heart, spirit, soul, and emotions–connecting in ways that cannot always be articulated by another form of communication.
This process of meaning-making with art is both personal and universal.
Watch this video featuring artist Senga Nengudi and consider the ways she taps into her personal identity and ways she connects universally in the lesson below.
Simply by being, that’s a political statement. So whatever comes out of me has all these elements of me in it: I’m Black, I’m a woman, and at this point I’m a woman of a certain age. So simply by being, I am those things.
- Consider this statement by Nengudi while looking at her work. Can you identify any visual clues that mark the artist’s presence?
- Look at these other artworks.
- What aspects of the artist’s personal identity are communicated?
- What aspects of your identity become fingerprints on works of art you make?
About the Artist
Born in Chicago in 1943, Senga Nengudi grew up in California and earned a master’s degree in sculpture from California State University at Los Angeles. Her interest in Gutai, a Japanese avant-garde arts movement, then drew her to study in Tokyo for a year. She returned to California for graduate studies before establishing studios in Los Angeles and New York. From 1998 to 2008, she taught at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
Nengudi’s sculptures became associated with the Black Arts Movement, which gave artistic shape to the rising political activism and Black nationalism of the era. Nengudi’s work is also in conversation with the Feminist art movement. And yet, for decades she and other Black artists were excluded because of racism. In addition, Nengudi’s pro- cess and artworks were difficult to categorize.
She was a sculptor, but one who used cheap or found materials. She was a dancer, but at the heart of her performances were these strange creations. Her work was too conceptual to be embraced by the mainstream art world as ‘Black art,’ which expected a strictly figurative and sociological view of Black life in America, but it was also too distinctly personal to be celebrated alongside the mostly white men who defined the conceptual art of the era. She was uncategorizable in an age that, for all its experimentation, still treasured systems of organization.
Over the following decades, white-owned galleries and museums in the United States remained largely uninterested in Black artists. During this time Nengudi and other Black artists exhibited outside the United States and, within the United States, in Black-run gallery spaces, public libraries, and community centers. They even created their own ways to share their art. Thanks to their perseverance, Nengudi was able to continually show her artwork and mature as an artist.
Gyarkye, Lovia. “An Artist’s Continuing Exploration of the Human Form,” New York Times, November 9, 2020. Accessed December 17, 2020.
About A.C.Q. I
In this mixed-media installation, Nengudi combines hard, rigid, found industrial objects with the soft, elastic properties of nylon. Nengudi works with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body. It is similar to the body because it is tight like skin in the beginning of its life, and after the passage of time and use it begins to sag, never returning to its original shape. The mixture of tension and movement suggest that resilience and fragility can coexist. The work also has qualities of being temporary, as the corroded materials attest to the passing of time while the moving fan activates the sculpture in the way a performer might in some of Nengudi’s other works. While long-term preservation of her artworks may not have been a consideration when she first made them, the passing of time has accepted the sculptures. They have become metaphors for bodies in transformation–acting and being acted upon, doing their best to exist in the world.
Consider this quote about A.C.Q.–“I liked the idea of the fragility of the body [nylons] up against something that’s solid and hard, and unyielding.”
- What does Nengudi’s quote mean to you?
- What might the quote help us understand about this artwork?
- If you were to create an installation/artwork that suggests resilience and fragility can coexist in your life, what kind of materials might you use?
Pass around a pair of nylons or ask kids to collect a pair of nylons/stockings from someone in their home. Experiment with stretching and moving the nylons and filling them with weight.
- What does it feel like?
- What does it remind you of?
- How does it make you feel to manipulate this material?
- What kind of message might be communicated about the body by using this material?
I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body. From tender tight beginnings to sagging end . . . The body can only stand so much push and pull before it gives way, never to resume its original shape . . . My works are abstracted recreations of used bodies–visual images that serve my aesthetic decisions as well as my ideas.
- What does this quote by Nengudi mean to you?
- Does it help you understand the artwork in a different way?
Inspired by Nengudi’s process and how artists connect personal identities and universal experience, we challenge you to do the same by creating a short, three-minute, performance artwork using at least one ready-made object (an ordinary article from your life used in your art).
Create a performance artwork that explores an aspect of your identity using your everyday object as a tool in the artwork. Transform the function of the object you selected and give it new meaning.
- Look inward: What personal experiences are fruitful to explore through artmaking? What might transcend your personal realm and connect to others universally? Use this brainstorming organizer to choose the topic or topics that feel most interesting to explore.
- Gather everyday objects that connect to your topic in some way
- What is the object? Why might it connect to your topic?
- Experiment with your objects. Place them in bizarre or unfamiliar locations to view them from another perspective or point of view. How do they move? How can they be combined in unusual ways? What other experiments can you come up with?
- Engage in self-reflection. Write about your initial ideas and plans for executing the work. This could take the form of a storyboard or an outline of your plan.
- Clarify and refine your process or approach as you prepare for your performance.
- Conduct your three-minute performance for an audience.
- Reflect by describing what actually happened, record viewers’ responses, and analyze the process as a whole. Make note of possible new directions to explore.
What is Performance Art?
Performance art is an act of doing—it is not recounting, re-enacting, or representing. The distinguishing difference between performance art and performance in the theatre is that performance art is real, a direct action, whereas theatrical performances recreate a written narrative. Performance art often incorporates four elements: temporality or duration, space, bodily action including stillness, and often the presence of the artist. Performance art can be enacted outdoors or in a studio or gallery context.
Performance art is often about an experiment by the artist rather than about entertaining an audience. Frequently a performance artist has created a challenge for themselves and, driven by curiosity, they perform to discover.
Performance art is about using your body and being present in the moment and often embraces playfulness in its creation. Many performances rely on interaction or reactions from an audience, but not always. We are using performance art to explore how personal can be universal. Because this mode of artmaking is about the personal and the political, it’s figurative and conceptual, sometimes simple and sometimes complicated.
The DAM established Creativity Resource thanks to a generous grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Featured activities are supported by funding from the Tuchman Family Foundation, The Freeman Foundation, The Virginia W. Hill Foundation, Sidney E. Frank Foundation – Colorado Fund, Colorado Creative Industries, Margulf Foundation, Riverfront Park Community Foundation, Lorraine and Harley Higbie, an anonymous donor, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Special thanks to our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education. The Free for Kids program at the Denver Art Museum is made possible by Scott Reiman with support from Bellco Credit Union.