The $100,000 Nasher Prize is awarded, for the first time, to an African American woman

In 2016, the Nasher Sculpture Center awarded its first Nasher Prize, which then, as now, stands on its own. No other international award cites sculpture alone, let alone the $100,000 that the prize brings with it.

Today, the Nasher turns another page in the history of honor and awards its 2023 Nasher Prize to an American, the third to receive it. However, she is the first African American to be counted among the seven honorees.

The winner is Senga Nengudi, 79, who was born in Chicago but now makes her home in the Colorado mountains. Her career began in the mid-1960s amid the fervor of the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and second-wave feminism.

Such events helped to dramatically shape the wide range of art Nengudi creates, extending beyond sculpture to performance art, and enhanced her ability to target race, gender, ethnicity, work, and deal with the passage of time.

Senga Nengudi is the winner of the 2023 Nasher Prize for Sculpture, announced on September 21...
Senga Nengudi is the winner of the 2023 Nasher Prize in Sculpture announced on September 21, 2022 by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. She is the seventh recipient of the $100,000 award and the first African American woman to win it.(Ron Pollard / Nasher Sculpture Center)

“I love the generosity of her work,” says Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, which relied on an eight-person international jury to select the winner.

He cites “the breadth of her practice, the way she embraces sculpture, objects, dance, performance, photography, film, painting, installation – and then brings those things together.”

Nengudi, says Strick, has positioned her work “in places and situations that are not traditional art sites. Yes, she has worked in galleries and in museum exhibitions, but some of her most important works were made or created in places like a fire escape in New York or a freeway underpass in Los Angeles—in public spaces.

“And while we often think of sculptures as permanent objects, some dating back thousands of years, her work also embraces impermanence. She is interested in the effect on the viewer.”

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He particularly praises their “embracing of unconventional materials, whether it’s plastic bags filled with water or crumpled newspapers, air conditioners or tights”.

Yes, tights, the tight-fitting legwear that covers the body from waist to toe. The judges obviously loved Nengudi’s use of tights, calling them “a defining feature of her work to this day.”

As the Nasher noted in its announcement, “She stretches, fills and knots them in a nod to the body and flesh—particularly that of women.” The works evoke pain, age, violence and temporality and tend to wear out over time.”

She is able to “take ordinary materials,” says Strick, “and turn them into something evocative, poetic, and powerful.”

She produces her work independently, “but so much of her work,” he says, “is about collaborating with friends and other artists, whether they’re visual artists or dancers or musicians, photographers or poets.”

This is a piece titled by Senga Nengudi "ceremony for freeway fets," 1978. Photographer is...
This is a piece by Senga Nengudi entitled Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978. Photographer is Quaku / Roderick Young. Image courtesy of Spruth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery.(Quaku / Roderick Young / Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

He describes her as an artist “who understands that identity of any kind, be it race identity or gender or anything else that you carry within you, is something that can create expectations of other people that you, as an artist, may not fully share .”

More broadly, he sees her as someone “who doesn’t want to be controlled or have the interpretation of her work controlled by other people’s preconceived notions”. So it’s not.

She is “someone who has his own vision and his own interests that he believes in. She followed them, and the work found its audience. She found a community of other artists” who represent “an incredibly creative, remarkable group.”

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The recognition she received prior to the Nasher Prize “has grown over the years,” he says, citing “the gift she has given and continues to give.”

And of course there is her age. Nengudi becomes the oldest of the seven honorees, leading Strick to say that “our jury has determined from the outset that the Nasher Prize is not a lifetime achievement award — which has nothing to say against lifetime achievement awards, which things are great.

“The jury wanted to identify artists who have significant body of work, who are not emerging artists, who are not ‘new’ talents, but who are creating work today that has a particularly strong contemporary voice, whose work is particularly influential among younger artists , whose work seems essential to the conversations artists have about art.”

Her work is similar to that of the award winners before her, who together embody a value that, according to Strick, the jury saw as a winner’s barometer: “Whose work, regardless of the artist’s age, speaks to the present and points to the future.”

This piece by Senga Nengudi is titled "ceremony for freeway fets," 1978. Photographer is Quaku...
This piece by Senga Nengudi is entitled Ceremony for Freeway Fets, 1978. Photographer is Quaku / Roderick Young, courtesy of Spruth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.(Timo Ohler / Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

Nengudi even managed to thrive in the 1960s and 1970s, says Strick, “when black artists were unappreciated by institutions, by galleries, or largely ignored at the time. She found a gallery in New York, just above midtown Manhattan, that really focused on black artists.”

He calls it “an incredibly rich and culturally productive place, but it was kind of out there all by itself. And most of the art world wasn’t paying attention.”

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The New York Times wrote enthusiastically about Nengudi’s work in 2020, noting that “In the decades following their debut, Nengudi’s sculptures became icons of the Black Arts movement, the multidisciplinary intellectual heyday of the ’60s and ’70s that coincided with the boom and gave him artistic form political activism and black nationalism of the era. They have also become touchstones in feminist art (a contemporaneous artistic movement), as even their materials literally tear apart traditional notions of femininity. (Nengudi has noted that because of the modesty of her materials, she was able to “put my entire show in my purse”: “I started thinking, ‘What is the core of a woman’s existence? The purse,'” she said.)

As a result, Strick calls Nasher’s decision “a very relevant one and a very timely one.”

Past Nasher Prize winners include: Nairy Baghrahaim (2022, an Iranian-born German artist), Michael Rakowitz (2020-21, an American artist living and working in Chicago), Isa Genzken (2019, a German artist who lives in Berlin), Theaster Gates (2018, an American artist living in Chicago), Pierre Huyghe (2017, a French artist) and Doris Salcedo (2016, the first winner to make her home in Colombia and whose war-torn history is hers career dramatically affected) .

The 2023 Nasher Prize Jury consists of Nairy Baghramain, artist; Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Director of Castello di Rivoli, Italy; Lynne Cooke, Senior Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Briony Fer, Professor of Art History, University College London; Hou Hanru, Artistic Director, MAXXI, Rome; Yuko Hasegawa, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary 21st Century Art in Kanazawa, Japan; Pablo León de la Barra, freelance curator, Latin America, Guggenheim Museum; and Sir Nicholas Serota, Chairman of the Arts Council England.

Nengudi will accept the award on April 1, 2023 at a special ceremony in Dallas.

In this work, Maren Hassinger activates Senga Nengudi's RSVP at the Pearl C. Wood Gallery in...
In this work, Maren Hassinger activates Senga Nengudi’s RSVP at the Pearl C. Wood Gallery in Los Angeles, 1977. Courtesy Spruth Magers and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York.(Harmon Outlaw / Thomas Erben Gallery, New York)

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