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Now Dig This! The Opening of the Senga Nengudi Papers

by Felicia D. Render, Archivist

Black and white photograph of Senga Nengudi, undated
Black and white photograph of Senga Nengudi, undated

The Senga Nengudi papers are finally preserved and available to researchers globally! The papers, preserved with funding assistance from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), are one of the 16 collections representing African American women leaders in a variety of fields, and are part of the IMLS grant project, “A Range of Experiences: Documenting African American Women’s History and Achievements.” Senga Nengudi is a visual and performance artist, arts educator and Black avant-garde artist from the 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles and New York City.

The Senga Nengudi papers chronicle the integral role of an African American woman artist whose life’s work demands a cultural response. Her performance pieces reference the body and the fundamental components of identity as it relates to gender and race. There’s a connecting thread throughout all of her work: her performances, also known as activations, are interactive and survey many facets of human nature, conceptualizing time, space, movement, commonplace materials and natural landscapes.

Black and white photograph of Senga Nengudi, circa 1977, undated
Black and white photograph of Senga Nengudi, circa 1977, undated

Within the papers are exhibition and performance files of Nengudi’s creative art, which touch on themes such as labor politics, body image and technology, among other topics. Exhibition and performance files cover individual or group exhibitions and performances, and contain correspondence, loan agreements, artists contracts, performance notes and installation instructions, along with flyers, gallery floor plans, copyright license permissions and ephemera. Nengudi’s current artwork invites viewers, through multimedia installations, to be interpreters and co-participants while exploring her exhibitions and performances.

The papers provide a perspective to view Nengudi’s work as highly influenced by African and Japanese cultures, as well as avant-garde art. Photographs and materials within the papers document these cultural influences and are represented in the Masked Taping and Ceremony for Freeway Fets files. Materials from these performances reflect elements of African dance, heritage and rituals. Items within the collection also cover forms of Japanese Kabuki theater, among influences from other cultures.

Of interest are the Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 files (2011-2014). Included within the files are correspondence, a loan agreement and receipt, press release, artists residency program agreement, calendar and other ephemera. Now Dig This!, organized by the Hammer Museum and curated by Kellie Jones, was a comprehensive exhibition that examined the incredibly vital legacy of African American visual artists in Los Angeles. The exhibit chronicled and celebrated the multicultural history of the city.

Front cover of brochure, "Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," 2011
Front cover of brochure, "Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," 2011

Nengudi’s most noted performance piece, R.S.V.P., derived its name from the French phrase “répondez s’il vous plaît,” meaning “please respond.” The performance is activated by energized dancers and performers, and movement with pantyhose and other commonplace objects, used as a holder of power. The R.S.V.P. files within the papers include correspondence, loan agreements signed by Nengudi with various galleries and museums, installation instructions and ephemera. Of interest is a file containing the total nylon mesh series and covering a list of art pieces. Also, there are photocopies of the artworks that were included as part of the exhibition.

The Senga Nengudi papers are extremely rich on the subjects of art, history, Black studies and the Black avant-garde artistic genre. Themes found in the materials of this collection encompass the unique contributions of African American artists and contemporary African art. Her papers offer a broad perspective aimed at providing awareness of a woman within the arts field and highlight a fascinating life of a Black woman visual and performance artist.

Access the Senga Nengudi papers here.

To access a previous blog post about Senga Nengudi, click here.

Note: Audiovisual materials within the Senga Nengudi papers will be accessible soon.

Institute of Museum and Library Services

This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MH-245560-OMS-20]. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

If you would like to support the funding of ARC’s Women’s Project, please donate via Amistad’s Network for Good.


Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.


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