Feminist Interview Project: Senga Nengudi in Conversation with Daisy McGowan

The Feminist Interview Project, organized by Katherine Guinness and Jocelyn Marshall on behalf of CAA’s Committee for Women in the Arts, examines the practices of feminism by interviewing a range of scholars and artists, preserving oral histories while expanding the boundaries of what might be considered feminist. Throughout its interviews this project reimagines the possibilities of feminist practice and feminist futures.

For our ongoing collaboration with Art Journal Open, the Feminist Interview Project is excited to present artist Senga Nengudi in conversation with Daisy McGowan,director and chief curator of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Gallery of Contemporary Art. The two met for a conversation in Colorado Springs on January 21, 2020.

Senga Nengudi at her exhibition Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Gallery (photograph by Daisy McGowan; provided by UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art)

Daisy McGowan: Senga, what would you say is your connection to feminist art? How did it develop? Do you define yourself as a feminist artist? Why or why not?

Senga Nengudi: When I was starting out I was a mother, a Black woman in the European world, and I was also a caregiver; I was in that sandwich generation. So, my work reflected that. It reflected me being a Black woman and all that that meant, all that it meant to be a mother, all that it meant to be a caregiver of someone that I love. So, of course, one would establish that as being feminist. But I didn’t label myself a feminist; I was put in that box. And if you look at a list of what a feminist should be, yeah, you can check all the boxes and that’s me. But I didn’t do it. I was labeled as such, and I’m fine with it. But I didn’t wave a flag or anything. It is just another element of who I am.

DM: And are there feminist artists or women artists who influenced your work?

SN: Well, that was kind of hard to come by because as I was growing up and being educated, I was not exposed at all to any Black female artists—or Black artists period! It’s something that I had to seek out. But I was very much influenced by Lygia Clark, the Brazilian performance artist, psychologist, so on and so forth. I was just taken by a photo of a piece she had done and I thought, oh, you know, what I’m doing is okay, I’m not alone, there’s someone that kind of thinks about art the way I do. The power that a photo has to give you information about a moment! And so, she’s the first. And then Ana Mendieta, and a little before that, Frida Kahlo. I mean, she’s classic. So yeah, there were a few, but most of these people, we all came up at the same time: Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper. So major influences were the people that I was working with. I wasn’t necessarily collaborating with them, but we were charged up to make a difference and to be recognized.

DM: It makes sense that it’s not just artists who you were studying but also your peers.

SN: Exactly. And that was fresh because no one was in any books. But we were pushing the envelope, and even pushing the feminist envelope. We were kind of brought along for the ride in a sense, as the feminist movement was basically a white middle-class women’s movement. And you know, we didn’t fit into some of the things they were pushing for, like equal pay and equal jobs. We already had jobs! They wanted to leave home and we were saying, “Oh, it’d be nice to stay at home!” So even within the realm of feminist art, there was this kind of—supposedly unseen—inequality. It . . . you know [sighs], it just didn’t feel like we were on an equal plane, it was still, okay, this is the aesthetic, we’re setting it. And if you don’t fit into that, then you’re not valued. So there’s that going on. I’m over it now but, you know, that’s the truth of it. It was a little bit shaky. Howardena Pindell often talks about this issue: if we have to come with our hat in our hand, and say, “Please, sir, please, accept our aesthetic,” then it’s not an equal playing field. It just isn’t.

DM: That makes sense. Let’s switch gears to talking about how you work. I know you’ve worked both solo and collaboratively over the years. Could you talk about that? And who you’ve worked with collaboratively?

SN: When I started out incorporating performance in my work, it really—from the beginning almost—was collaborative in nature. And my dear friend Maren Hassinger—we have been collaborators for forty years. And even though our careers—I hate to say “careers”—our ongoing work isn’t exclusively collaborative, but still, at any moment’s notice, we can say, “Hey, what about this idea? Oh, yeah, let’s do that.” And it continues. The collaborations that we’ve done over the years—I think it started in the late ’70s—lasted up until a couple of years ago. She has been the most active and most consistent activator of my R.S.V.P.sculptures.1 And we’ve worked with a number of people over the years. We’re the core and then there are other people that come in and work with us. I’m involved with a collaboration now with three other artists, and it keeps things fresh, it keeps things new. It’s kind of the social part of being an artist because you’re normally in your studio and it’s a very solitary thing. So, when you start these collaborations it helps to expand your visual as well as philosophical and theoretical vocabulary. It’s always been a constant in my work, even today in the performative aspect of my work.

DM: Right, and with some of your early performances, would you consider those collaborations with the Black Arts Movement? I know you were leading a lot of those, like the Ceremony for Freeway Fets. That was sort of your idea, but you had other artists working with you? Did that feel collaborative?

SN: Right, exactly. Sometimes I would create. I’d have a thought and I’d say, “Oh, hey, let’s do this.” And then other times, for instance, Maren had performances that I participated in; she set the theme and so on. And then myself and others rallied around her to complete the idea.

DM: And then I’m sure that each of you grew off each other’s ideas.

SN: Very much. And it was very exciting if I must say so myself [laughs].

DM: You talked about some of the women you collaborated with. Do you have any involvement with groups of women artists or other women in the art world? We talked about Maren, but you were actually in a group? Women and men?

SN: Exactly. And that was really important because Western culture has a way of separating and segregating absolutely everything. You have to be a feminist, so, there’s no, you know, just women, or it has to be Black, and there’s just Black people. So, myself and those that I’m working with, we really want to include everybody and see everything. Early on in the ’80s, it wasn’t just us as Black artists. We had people like May Sun, who’s Chinese American, she was born in China. And Latina artists and their culture overall is just so doggone rich, and to prevent people from having that full breadth of experience, it’s just ridiculous. So we actively worked with each other, and in ways that were very respectful of our cultures and could nurture our cultures, separately and together. What happens when all of these people get together? What happens when there’s a different lens? So, that is our interest: it’s not separating this culture and that culture. You know, the male and female Black person, we’ve had a very complicated history, so I really don’t want to separate them. I really don’t want to say, “Oh, you know, it gets pretty funky,” but it gets pretty stimulating and it has to be supportive. The way things are today, we have to support each other. So, I truly am not a segregationist. I want it all. I want to see everybody. I want to see what everybody has to say. I want to grow from what everybody has to say.

DM: Do you want to talk a little bit about your most recent collaboration?

,SN: Sure and this is a prime example. I’m collaborating with three other artists. One is a dancer, [Haruko] Crow Nishimura. She’s out of Seattle and her husband Joshua [Kohl] is a musician and they perform together. And then eddy kwon is a musician that was working in Cincinnati at the time. We couldn’t be more diverse. eddy is only twenty-nine and she’s an absolute genius. When I say that, it’s not just because she’s a musician. She’s gotten people together, young people, in Cincinnati. eddy created an after-school music program that’s dramatically changed their lives. She started I think, with maybe fifteen or so people. Now she has 200 students. Once they finish there, they’re going to college and so on, so forth. And in terms of her music, she’s currently playing with an amazing group called the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which is a historic improvisational jazz group. eddy is constantly working on her craft. And Crow and Joshua, I believe they’re in their late forties. And you have me [laughs] in terms of, you know, talking about generational exchanges. eddy is Korean American, Crow is Japanese, and Joshua is Jewish. It’s amazing. And eddy, although she’s in New York now, she grew up in Minnesota and Ohio. You can imagine, I mean, she barely saw anyone that looked like her growing up. We all have our cultural stories that, so far, we have not let weigh us down. I’m really excited about working with them. It’s very fresh. And that’s what collaborations are about, you know, to freshen things up.

DM: It was really an honor to work on producing the traveling exhibition [Senga Nengudi: Improvisational Gestures] with you and with the curators Elissa Auther and Nora Burnett Abrams, and to produce the [corresponding] publication.2 One thing I thought would be interesting to add is that you’ve always been an educator alongside your art practice . . . You were on the faculty at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs for fourteen-years. It’s where I work and how we connected. Can you talk about the role of teaching, especially thinking about collaboration in teaching. You’re still teaching in a way, although your work is taking you more into the gallery and museum realm lately. But how does that role as an educator cross over with some of these questions that we’ve been talking about? Like you said, you didn’t label yourself as a feminist necessarily, but can we think about education and collaboration and being an educator through feminism? Did your role as teacher, working with students, create collaboration? You talked about the freshness of this collaboration, and I hear from faculty a lot that when they teach their eyes really open and they’re excited to see what their students are doing as well.

SN: Yes, I am always excited about seeing young artists’ work. I’m going to kind of go in the back door on this one. The reason I chose to work at the university was because, besides being asked, I wanted to offer something that I did not think was being done at the time, which was, again, seeing a broad spectrum of artists and cultures. And a lot of times what I had to offer was absolutely new, it wasn’t in the books that they normally read or anything like that. It felt like I was offering a service, that I was filling in the spaces, so to speak, so that if nothing else they would try and learn more on their own and know that there’s something more than what’s been taught. I really like for people to be involved, to participate as much as possible. If I give a lecture, ideally, it’s something where people—I don’t want to say people have to step up, that doesn’t sound good—but people, somehow, must be actively involved in the moment. And that is what’s exciting to me. I don’t like going to a lecture where I’m not involved. But when I’m involved then, ideally, it’s getting deeper and interests you. It’s not in one ear and out the other. All of a sudden, you are actively involved in creating the moment.

DM: I’ve been to your lectures, and I really love how you do that; you invite people to participate and create something together, with movement, which has been such a big part of your work over the years and your background with dance and movement. I’ve never seen anybody else do that so elegantly and effectively as you do.

SN: Oh good! Great! [laughs]

DM: And it invites a connection with you from the audience just by asking them to participate with you. And then there’s a little bit of humor, usually, right?

SN: Yes, exactly.

DM: Sort of not taking ourselves so seriously. But there’s also something about moving the body together that just connects.

SN: It does. You explained it clearly. That’s what I like to do. And hopefully, in most cases, it’s effective. I have this kind of formula, that is sort of like one plus one equals three. It’s when a person looks at an artwork and they have an experience. And ideally that experience will start stimulating stuff in their mind. And so, you have the art, you have the person, and then, it’s just like having a baby, you have this third thing that happens that has some of those elements in it, but it’s totally its own thing. So, through the growth of this exchange—that you’ve given yourself over to the work and the work is talking to you and it’s this back-and-forth thing—then all of a sudden this stuff conjures and gets charged up like having intercourse. And then the results ideally are this exceptional thing. This third thing that’s unique and has been produced by simply this exchange

DM: That’s powerful.

SN: Yes, exciting.

DM: I’m going to say thank you for your time, thank you for your art, and for everything you’ve given to this community and the university. We’re lucky to have you here in Colorado Springs, and in our history in the world. You’ve worked incredibly hard all these years. I feel lucky to know you.

SN: It’s mutual, and I think curators and curating directors don’t get enough recognition for having a venue where people can do everything we’ve been talking about; where people at large can come in and have a varied experience. It takes a lot of sensitivity and a lot of research and a lot of everything. People just don’t even think about curators, and you all are the orchestrators, you’re the band leaders, you’re the trombone section, and the drum section! You gather all these elements so that you can have this wonderful symphony of visual art.

DM: That’s a real collaboration.

SN: Oh, my goodness, truly!

Senga Nengudi was born in Chicago, raised and educated in Los Angeles and Pasadena, and currently lives in Colorado. Interested in the visual arts, dance, body mechanics, and matters of the spirit from an early age, these elements still play themselves out in ever changing ways in her art. She has always used a variety of natural (sand, dirt, rocks, seed pods) and unconventional (panty hose, found objects, masking tape) materials to fashion her works, utilizing them as a jazz musician might notes and sounds to improvise a composition. The thrust of her art is to share common experiences in abstractions that hit the senses and often welcome the viewer to participate. Along with doing art, Nengudi is strongly committed to arts education. As a retired educator at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS) Visual Arts and Performing Arts Department, Nengudi is strongly committed to arts education. She continues to be involved with bringing arts programs with an emphasis on diversity to the communities in which she resides. Besides her individual efforts she has belonged to a variety of organizations with similar goals.

Daisy McGowan is an award-winning arts administrator, contemporary art curator, and community activator who has served as director and chief curator for the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art since 2010. McGowan has independently and collaboratively curated and produced over ninety-five exhibitions for UCCS GOCA, Colorado College IDEA Space, Colorado College Coburn Gallery, as well as regional and national contemporary sites, including RedLine Contemporary Art Center (Denver) and Durden and Ray Gallery/Bendix Building (Los Angeles). McGowan was born abroad and raised internationally and across the United States. She received her BA with honors in studio art from Colorado College and MPA with a focus on arts administration, nonprofit management, and nonprofit fund development from the University of Colorado. McGowan is on the faculty of the UCCS Visual and Performing Arts Department and a frequent speaker and published author on the topics of contemporary art and art economics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

  1. For more information on Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. works see https://www.sengasenga.com/works/rsvp and for more information on their activations, see https://www.sengasenga.com/works/activations.
  2. https://gocacolospgs.tumblr.com/post/131516877801/senga-nengudi-artist-curator-talk-catalog. For more information on the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS see https://gocadigital.org