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Issue 236

Senga Nengudi’s Lesser-known Writing Practice

In anticipation of the artist’s forthcoming book to be published in 2024 with Dia Art Foundation, frieze presents an extract of Nengudi’s exuberant prose

BY Senga Nengudi in Features , Opinion | 13 JUN 23

In early April, I attended a talk at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas between the artist Senga Nengudi – this year’s Nasher Prize winner – and longtime collaborator Linda Goode Bryant. The conversation started in standard fashion, with the pair discussing the breadth of Nengudi’s sculpture and performance practice while reminiscing about their decades-long friendship. After fewer than 20 minutes, however, the artist decided to break with convention. In homage to another collaborator, the composer Butch Morris, Nengudi involved the audience in an improvisational exercise that Morris dubbed ‘conduction’. She handed out envelopes to members of the front row. Inside were cards featuring words like ‘laugh’, ‘cheer’ and ‘sparkle’. In turn, Nengudi asked participants to read aloud then act out their word, with the rest of the audience instructed to follow suit. The result was a boisterous and hilarious performance indicative of the artist’s playful exuberance.

The moment also underscored Nengudi’s fascination with wordplay, which has frequently informed her performance and sculpture. From early artist’s statements penned in college to more recent lyrical musings – published periodically under the pseudonym Lily Bea Moor to challenge preconceptions around race, nationality and identity – writing has always played a significant role in Nengudi’s practice. When I spoke to her, the artist was quick to point out that, while often taking the form of verse, her ‘writings are just writings – they are not poems. It’s a form of documentation, a record of how I’m feeling in a particular moment.’ Here, in anticipation of her forthcoming artist’s book to be published in 2024 with Dia Art Foundation, we present a selection of writings that express the diversity and exuberance of Nengudi’s prose.

— Terence Trouillot


Woman with head piece with back turned to camera.
Senga Nengudi, Performance with ‘Inside/Outside’, 1977. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023, Amistad Research Center, Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York; photograph: Ken Peterson


Statement (1993)

Those doing ritual have the assurance of time.

Individual acts of art do not have to depend on the permanence of the materials

Only the permanence of the soul.

World/Soul without in

I create a peace/piece

I wipe it out with my hands, my feet, my body.

It remains in the fabric of time threading through the millennia

Remembered and forgotten a thousand times over. Yet there.

Seen – not seen – experienced as part of the air.


Artist Statement (1999)

I live in the fourth dimension when I create landscapes. These landscapes are made from materials that are discarded and commonplace. I like to dance with the spaces I occupy, creating a triad. Partnering, we show what each other has to offer.

The selection of a site and materials is critical to my creative process. They are my way into a concept that seems to usher forth (take form) from my manipulation of them. My selection of materials also addresses/reflects who I am and my status in society: Artist / Woman / Black / Of a Certain Age / With Adult Children and Aging Parents / United States of America Citizen. The order may change in importance on any given day.

Often, today’s installations are expensive, technologically driven, major productions. I prevail with what is at hand. My installations are subtle, intimate, durable like a bird’s nest; addressing issues of time and personal change, they make viewers feel welcome enough to participate.

Utilizing masking tape, gravel, dirt, newspapers, powdered tempera, seedpods, stripped pantyhose, photos and found stuff is a statement in itself. To shape-shift paradigms, I find different ways to use materials that others consider useless or insignificant, providing proof that the disregarded and disenfranchised may also have the resilience and reformative ability to find their poetic selves.

In many ways, my installations are informed by my performances. One ongoing performance that I began about three years ago, What’s in a Name?, sees me adopt different personas. What’s in a name? I propose plenty. That is why I have a different name for each medium I use.

Blue hand holding heart.
Propecia Leigh, Blue Hand, undated. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023, Amistad Research Center, Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York

Propecia Leigh – Photographer

Harriet Chin – Painter

Lily Bea Moor –Writer

In Black culture, naming has great significance. We have been called out of our names so often that controlling that aspect of our lives with a wily, Br’er Rabbit sensibility is important.

Each name has personal significance. But, more importantly, I wanted to explore the fact that many of us fall into the trap of forming an opinion as to what an artist’s work ‘should’ look like based on their ethnicity. An ethnic name attached to an artwork assumes us into an unconscious shorthand way of understanding the style or subject matter with expectations of what the style and subject matter should be.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes (1999–ongoing) is another in-progress performance project. The idea came from an old Japanese folktale that spoke of villagers who were complaining about the weight of their individual problems. The wise man of the village told each of them to write down their problems on a piece of paper and tie it to a large tree in the centre of the village. Each villager was to take down the problem of another and live with it, with the option of returning in a month to retrieve their own problem. Well, at the end of the month, not one but all of the villagers hurried back to retrieve their own problems, having realized that they were uniquely able to handle them.

My concept is similar. In response to this folk wisdom, I have been mailing out shoes in all directions to people of all sorts with the instructions to the recipient to move, dance or walk a mile in the shoes they receive, document the event, send the documentation back to me, then send the shoes on to someone else. The concept is to explore how uncomfortable it is to try and fit into another’s shoes and to show that, no matter how complicated or difficult our problems, we are well-suited to handle the twists and turns of our own lives. In addition to shoes travelling to parts of Colorado, California, Maryland and New York, one pair has already changed feet twice on the way to Denmark. An artist’s book is due to be completed upon receipt of 100 pieces of documentation.


Walk a Mile in My Shoes (c.1999)

Use these shoes to walk or dance a mile (5,280 feet). If they don’t

fit, make them work in some way. Let me know how it goes.

Send me a pair to wear.




Shoes poster.
Senga Nengudi, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, 2004, performance sketch. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023, Amistad Research Center, Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York


Untitled (c.1966)

The arrows you see in this photo were made by me. Arrow one points to where the students staged their most violent demonstration.

Arrow two points to the other area reserved for that purpose but, usually, when they are held there, they are of less violent nature!

And 99 percent of the demonstrations are against American Imperialism and (the war in) Vietnam.

I’ve yet to meet a person for the war. Or for any form or kind of war, period.

OK, yes. This is a cleaned-up photo of the campus. It really has more character and characters than shown here.


‘Only Love Can Make It Right’ (2020)

My ancestors

I honour you

I remember you


We need you


We thank you for your guidance, for your love, for your vision

     of better, for your courage, for all of you whose lives were

     unjustly and maliciously taken before your time

It’s time

It is time

To gather our collective wits about us, chant the same song,

    hum the same melody of now

Enforce en masse

Ghost underground

Bones knocking in rhythm

A deafening sound

On top of ground

The names still spoken

No forgetting

Heart to heart

Our blood still flows from your origin

Toes touching soil



From human being to a commodity

Soul of a nation, lost in an instant

Only love

Still, only love can make it right

Only love can save the day.


‘Verb List’ (2020)
















Black and white image of a university campus.
Waseda University Campus, 1966, Tokyo. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023


Personal Statement (2018)

My approach to art has changed and expanded over the years, but my concern with the way life experiences pull and tug on the human body and psyche remains, with now more of a focus on cultural and universal human ways of coping.

In my work, I often utilize humble, discarded, castaway materials (tape, plastic, pantyhose, etc.), as well as nature’s own sand and water, in performances and thought actions as a means to express the belief that – as with disenfranchised humans – often-dismissed materials may be transformed into poetic entities.

With an improvisational impulse, I gather and work my materials. Elements of my pieces are like individuals – fragmented, confused, straightforward, full, empty, misunderstood, frayed, titillating, bland, slick – radiating infinite possibilities when combined with one another this way and that to make a whole, like Alice going through the looking glass to find herself on the other side of reality, which gives voice to those with no tongue to speak about their fragile selves. My work says ‘yes’ to all those who have been told ‘no’ by the majority.


Statement on Work (1972)

Spirits is the subject that I’m working with. The inner souls or spirits of people I have seen on the city streets, particularly in Harlem. There is a series of 25 of these souls made out of nylon flag material.

The pieces are basically two-dimensional. The material is seen at its best with natural sunlight shining through it, which intensifies the colours of the pieces. If shown inside, the same effect may be captured by spotlight. These are basically outdoor pieces and, when the wind hits them, they begin to talk and move about. Again, in an indoor space, fans may be substituted to gain the same effect.

There is a series of grommets at strategic points on the pieces. Nylon cord is attached through these holes, extended to the wall fixture and/or whatever fence or building protrusion is available, and secured there.


Untitled (2012)

Love is an infinitely expanding heart.

Phenomenal acceptance

Giving someone your all

Love is an exercise in exorcism.


Love U written in the sand.
Propecia Leigh, Written in Sand, undated. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023


Untitled (2004)











Untitled (2000)

[To continue an earlier phone remark]

An early bedtime –

Just a note about movies, style and violence. We went to see Shaft today. All of us. Ava, Jesse and me. Jesse had seen it before, said the end was weird, but didn’t reveal it. Ava was extremely tired from a late sleepover. I was really up to be entertained. And horrors! I was entertained.


I was speeding down the throughway boulevard with thoughts of the whiteness of light, when off to my right a strange sight caught my eye.

On a brown grassy knoll, a white horse stood very still, held back from venturing further by a wooden fence. At first, I thought the horse was occupied with looking at the herd of cars wizzing (sic) by like a blur below him – I included in that number. But no, at a second glance, to my amazement, the horse was looking past all that with such a sense of longing in its eyes that I was moved by the passion and sadness of the moment. As if that which allowed him to breathe had been taken away.

Now, as I write of this incident, I realize the same look and stance must have come over a slavemother (sic) watching her child being taken away – still watching after the child was far from sight.


A blue figure hanging between buildings.
Senga Nengudi, Down (Purple), 1972, cibachrome print. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023, Amistad Research Center, Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York; photograph: Doug Harris


Untitled (2004)

I have always had a desire

A yearning

To time travel

I have fantasized about it

Since childhood

Besides the awareness

That travelling back in time

Might be treacherous

If I travelled back as

I am today

A big black woman of a certain age

There is the issue of changing

History by turning left instead

Of right

I might negate

My own self being born

The issues and problems abound

Regarding true time travel

Forward or backward

I’ve however found a solution

Certainly not as adventurous

Or dangerous as the real thing

And that history and

The study of visionaries

I’ve always had a passion for

History – as far back as I can


It excites me to know end

The problem is getting a

True picture of any given

Time … The Pioneer, the Indian,

The politicians, the African,

The conquered and the conquerors.

I am reading a book about

Benjamin Franklin that is

Intriguing me know end.

And what the future holds

I believe I can garner that

From visionaries past and

Present as well as my own

Thought constructions.

I will just time-travel between the lines.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 236 with the headline ‘Studying Visionaries’

Main image: Senga Nengudi, Bulemia, 1988/2018, newspaper and gold spray paint, 308 × 424 × 429 cm, installation view, 2020. Courtesy: © Senga Nengudi, 2023, Amistad Research Center, Sprüth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Senga Nengudi is an artist. She is the recipient of the 2023 Nasher Prize. Her work is currently on display at Dia Beacon, Beacon, New York, in an exhibition curated by Matilde Guidelli-Guidi, and at Spruth Magers, New York.