The sculptor and performance artist Senga Nengudi, whose five-decade-long career has mined everyday materials to explore concepts of ritual, femininity, Blackness and the fragility of the body, is the winner of the 2023 Nasher Prize.
The international award, in its sixth year, includes a $100,000 cash prize, an exhibition and a series of public events in Dallas in March and April. It is less a lifetime achievement award, said Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, than a recognition of an artist with a significant body of work “who is continuing to speak with great force to the contemporary moment.”
In a phone conversation, Nengudi, 78, said, “I think about so many artists who are now gone, and I’m just grateful that I’m here in body to receive all this.”
Nengudi’s best-known series, “R.S.V.P.,” made of used pantyhose that is stretched, knotted and weighted with sand, was inspired by watching her body bounce back after childbirth, and by Black wet nurses whose breasts stretched and sagged from suckling so many children who weren’t their own. The sculptures debuted at Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York in 1977. Along with collaborators including David Hammons and, most often, Maren Hassinger, they were used in performances in gallery settings as well as decidedly non-art spaces, including a Los Angeles freeway underpass.
Lynne Cooke, senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, who served on this year’s jury, finds important lessons in Nengudi’s use of materials for today. “So much work we see has vast resources behind it, and to see something very economic and poetic and eloquent is an important guide for younger artists,” she said.
The Nasher Prize comes on the heels of an important, though belated, recognition of her work. She was the subject of a retrospective that opened in Munich in 2020 and subsequently traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, and to Denver. The Dia Art Foundation will mount a long-term, multi-gallery installation of Nengudi’s art at its Beacon location starting in 2023, said the director, Jessica Morgan. It will focus on work from the 1960s until today.
Asked to comment on all these accolades coming at once, Nengudi likens it to a wave washing over you. “It’s wonderful, it’s exciting, but you have to dig your feet into the sand to stay grounded, and to remember that it’s all about the creative voice and continuing to get your voice out there,” she said.
Past winners have included Nairy Baghramian, Michael Rakowitz, Isa Genzken, Theaster Gates, Pierre Huyghe and Doris Salcedo. Nengudi is the first Black woman to receive the honor.