Los Angeles

Senga Nengudi, Sandmining B, 2020, sand, pigment, nylon mesh, sound, dimensions variable.

Senga Nengudi, Sandmining B, 2020, sand, pigment, nylon mesh, sound, dimensions variable.

Senga Nengudi

During this past summer’s groundswell of demonstrations against police brutality across the United States, Senga Nengudi was putting the final touches on her installation Sandmining B, 2020, for her solo exhibition here. Inevitably, along with Bulemia, 1988/2018, another large-scale installation in the show, the works feel marked by these historic national expressions of pain and outrage—not to mention the decades of protest that preceded them. And yet, despite so much anguish and horror, Nengudi’s show manages to be a balm—a reclamation of Black history grounded in hope for the future. Like Nengudi’s famous stretched-pantyhose-and-sand R.S.V.P. sculptures, or her performance works from the 1970s (in relation to those objects and elsewhere), the artist in these newer pieces utilizes discarded materials to invoke the powers of ephemeral creation and transcultural ritual.

The artist made her first version of Bulemia in 1988 as an outgrowth of Double Think Bulemia, an experimental twenty-eight-minute sound piece aired on the radio and made in collaboration with musicians Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, among others. Bulemia, as opposed to the eating disorder bulimia, is a form of purging with a positive valuation—an expunging of doublethink and racial negativity. Nengudi and her project partners envisioned Bulemia as “an imaginary utopian state . . . the perfect place to live and work as artists.”

For the version of Bulemia on display here, Nengudi filled a small room with a selection of newspapers, dating from the 1970s to the present, that featured stories about Black life from around the globe. The artist edited these historical records by using gold spray paint to cover any unwanted narratives, thus performing an amelioratory corrective. For example, several words from a large headline might get blotted out, turning what could have been an ugly or distressing announcement into a message of empowerment, imploring the viewer to JUST HOLD ON or SEE MORE LOVE.

The theme of healing is even more overt in Sandmining B, a room-size square of sand that draws on several transcultural rituals—including Navajo sand painting, the creation of Tibetan sand mandalas, and the practice of rangoli in India—in which sand is used to restore or manifest a positive outcome. Nengudi’s sand paintings, which she started making in the mid-’90s, began as a daily practice. Initially, the ephemeral compositions were much more modest in scale: roughly the size of a dinner plate. Unlike the other traditions she quotes for Sandmining B, Nengudi’s designs are looser, deconstructed, less intricate. The work resembles a setting for a performance that has already taken place, strewn with abandoned props (something like the artist’s Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978, for which Nengudi and collaborators performed improvised music and dance under a freeway overpass in Los Angeles). The field of sand indexes hundreds of footprints and traces of pigment and is punctuated with scattered metal car parts, including a muffler. Sprays of colored pigment against the wall behind the work call to mind the aftermath of a Holi festival—a colorful Indian celebration of spring and light conquering darkness.

The installation is enlivened by a monologic sound work written and read by Nengudi and punctuated by musical interludes improvised by her son Sanza Pyatt Fitz and the late cornetist Butch Morris in a format reminiscent of the Bulemia radio show. In the audio piece, Nengudi talks about her ancestors and the violence of slavery. She also sounds a call to action: “It is time. To gather our collective wits about us, chant the same song, hum the same melody of now. In force, en masse.” In the spirit of unabashed hope, Nengudi urges us, “Only love can make it right. Only love can save the day.”