Senga Nengudi

Artist - Sculptor - Choreographer - Costumer - Co-founder of Studio Z collective - Recipient of the 2023 Nasher Prize

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Which of these terms best describes your relationship to Los Angeles: point of origin, detour, or destination?

It sounds like a blues song but… (sings) “I was born in Chicago, raised in L.A.” That’s kind of how it was. I was born in Chicago and spent my earlier years there. But I was framed by Los Angeles.

What year does your relationship with Los Angeles begin?

We moved to Pasadena first, in 1955, something like that. And then we moved within a year or so to L.A. I kind of bounced between L.A. and Pasadena, but most of my formative years, as they say, were spent in L.A. I went to Vermont Avenue Elementary School and then the worst middle school in the world, Foshay Junior High. And then Dorsey High School was just the opposite of that experience.

Black-and-white photo of the artist Senga Nengudi in the early 1970s.
low res Black-and-white photo of the artist Senga Nengudi in the early 1970s.

Senga Nengudi, early 1970s (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Can you describe your first house or apartment of significance in L.A.? What was the street? Who were the neighbors?

My mother was a single mother and we moved around a lot from one point to another. When I was going to Vermont Avenue Elementary, we were in an apartment building, like a fourplex, but I really can't remember where it was. Then when I went to Foshay, we lived in a corner house on Vernon. It’s hard for me to remember specifics about the places we lived because those were some fairly traumatic times. Eventually she gathered all of our resources and we got a little house down off of Normandie and sixty-something. We had to use someone else's address so I could go to Dorsey instead of Manual Arts. The heart of my life in L.A. ended up happening near Vermont and Adams. Even when I came back to after traveling and got married, we lived in that area off of Western and Adams. My whole life in L.A. is kind of in that area.

Black-and-white photo of the Helms Bakery truck and driver taken in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
low res Black-and-white photo of the Helms Bakery truck and driver taken in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Helms bakery truck, 1931 (USC)

When the city was new to you, where did you go for fun? What were your rituals?

Helms Bakery had these little trucks that would go in the neighborhood. It was a little van, almost the size of a postal truck, with all these drawers and in each drawer was another kind of goodie. You could buy donuts or muffins or different breads. So we loved the Helms man.

What song or piece of music evokes the neighborhood where you grew up?

The Fiestas, “So Fine.” And… (sings) “You're a thousand miles away…” That sort of thing. I memorized all the words.

1950s yearbook from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, California, showing Sue Irons (Senga Nengudi).
low res 1950s yearbook from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, California, showing Sue Irons (Senga Nengudi).

Senga Nengudi (top right) in Dorsey High School yearbook, 1961

When you first ventured into the city beyond your immediate environs, what were the places that made an impression? Who showed you these places?

When I was around 12, my mom would take me downtown. You had to wear gloves, you had to wear a dress, and I probably had a hat on too. But certainly you always had to wear gloves to go downtown. We would have lunch at Clifton's Cafeteria and go to the May Company and Robinson, but Bullock's had a particular aura to it that was so special. At that time it was quite the deal to be a black elevator operator at Bullock's. That was a super duper big deal. More were light skinned, as I recall, and almost snotty because they had this position.

Ornette Coleman would have been an elevator operator at Bullock's around that time.

I was so excited when you told me that.

There's something in those moments of coincidental passing, even if they're unnoticed.

He probably lasted a minute!

When radio mattered in Los Angeles, what program, station, or announcer did you love?

I remember listening to Art Laboe at home, talking on the phone with my girlfriend about what we were going to wear the next day. Coordinating the colors and all that kind of stuff. You could buy these sheets with all the lyrics of the popular songs, so I was constantly looking at those words and singing along.

Describe your first, favorite, or longest-owned car.

I had a Cimarron that I loved. Red in red. It had leather seats and everything. It was beautiful. It would always break down because it would overheat. That's why you never see a Cimarron today. Obviously it didn't cost as much of a Cadillac sedan but you got Cadillac service and that was new to me.

Red interior of a Cadillac Cimarron.
low res Red interior of a Cadillac Cimarron.

Interior of a Cadillac Cimarron (Cadillac Owners Forum)

Describe the restaurant in which you've spent the most hours.

In the '70s and '80s, my husband and I lived at 2158 West 24th Street, which is off Western just above Adams. We used to take our kids to a taco stand right on Western a half block above the 10 freeway. It's still there today. May I say, they had the best burritos. Oh my god! (laughs) And then the other one is El Cholo on Western near Pico. And then there was Tommy's on Rampart. We’d stand in line for that. And then one more, up in Echo Park ... I want to say it's called Burrito King.

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Senga Nengudi's favorite burrito stand, 2001 S Western Ave, 2023 (Sam Sweet)

What outdoor space in Los Angeles have you spent the most time?

I think of the places we did performances. Usually myself and Maren Hassinger and Houston Conwill and Franklin Parker. We would go to Griffith Park or sneak into the Greek Theater or the Rose Garden in Exposition Park when they were empty and create our own performances. These were usually not documented but "Ceremony For Freeway Fets" is one that is.

Color photograph of the artist Senga Nengudi's "Ceremony For Freeway Fets" taken in Los Angeles, California, in 1978.
low res Color photograph of the artist Senga Nengudi's "Ceremony For Freeway Fets" taken in Los Angeles, California, in 1978.

Senga Nengudi, Ceremony For Freeway Fets performance & installation, 1978 (Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Out of all the underpasses in L.A., what made you choose that one underpass on Pico and the 110 for Freeway Fets?

It was a street I traveled all the time. There were Latino and Korean neighborhoods nearby. Native American people who came into the city from the rez would all be in that area. So it had this sense of intersection. And it was the home of a lot of homeless people. There was a shelving between the actual freeway and the ground. People would sleep up there because it was safe. They were off the ground and it provided shelter. There were little palm trees and a lot of dirt and people burning fires there to keep warm. It just had an African energy to me.

That location is profound to me because you perceived a distinctive African energy in this location that others would see as anonymous or empty.

Which speaks to the issue of invisibility in terms of our community. I've always had a tendency to like spaces that look like excavations. You know, when they dig up a building and they haven't quite put the new structure in there and it looks like it could be from any age or any place. I've always liked that but it’s a little bit more difficult to get permission for something like that! So that space on Pico had this kind human history to it because it was a home for invisible or overlooked people.

Which specific elements manifested that African energy for you?

It was the dirt. Just plain dirt. And then these little palm trees, maybe a foot high or two feet high. Not these big elaborate, plush lush California palm trees. Just these little scrubby ones.

The site is now a gated parking lot for Staples Center crowds. Do you wish there was a historical marker for Freeway Fets or is the anonymity somehow appropriate?

No, I'd love a marker! What the heck. That would be fun.

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Site of Ceremony For Freeway Fets performance & installation, 2023 (Sam Sweet)

Whether or not you swam, what beach or pool lingers in your memory?

When I was a teenager at Dorsey, beach parties were the big fun. We would get in a car and take Crenshaw down to Manchester, then drive west out to Playa Del Rey. That’s where we used to go.

What movie theater would you bring back from the dead?

I had a storefront studio on La Salle just off Adams. When David Hammons started bouncing back and forth between L.A. and New York, he would use my studio when he was in town. Right around the corner, on Adams and La Salle, there was this little cinema where we would see Flash Gordon on Saturdays as kids. When I passed it as an adult, it looked like the tiniest thing in the world.

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David Hammons and Bruce Talamon outside Senga Nengudi's Studio, 2517 La Salle Avenue, 1977 (Bruce Talamon)

What is a bar or nightclub you loved that no longer exists?

There was all kinds of places near Washington and Western. My favorite was The Rubiayat Room, where we used to go see Ernie Andrews sing. But a lot of the best concerts happened at David Hammons' studio, which was this big building at 2409 Slauson. That was the beginning of Studio Z. There were storefronts on the street level which were converted into studios and then this big 1940s-style dancehall on the second floor where we had performances. The Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Horace Tapscott Orchestra and Bobby Bradford and Henry Franklin all played there.

Poster for a jazz performance at Studio Z on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles.
low res Poster for a jazz performance at Studio Z on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles.

Flyer for a concert at Studio Z, 4901 Slauson Ave, 1982

What was your first earthquake or your worst earthquake?

The Sylmar earthquake in 1971. I remember being at an apartment complex. I can't remember where exactly it was or why I was there. Maybe I lived there for a minute or maybe I was coming through town and could stay at this place. I remember looking at the pool in the middle of the apartment complex and this huge pool was just like a cup of water that someone was sloshing around. The water was just going up and down and up and down.

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Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger performing "Nylon Mesh," Los Angeles, CA 1977 (Harmon Outlaw)

What's a place you associate with great parties or the parties you best remember?

Ulysses Jenkins always gave good parties. It was always fun and lively and I guess you might say intercultural, interracial. He had a big space on Vermont and Adams called Othervisions. He lived there and used it as a studio and a performance space. It was really important because we could all flesh out ideas there and present performances. He was always good about bringing so many people together. It seemed like Ulysses was always nude in his performances. I said, "Man, can't you keep your clothes on?" (laughs)

Shirtless photo of the artist Ulysses Jenkins.
low res Shirtless photo of the artist Ulysses Jenkins.

Ulysses Jenkins, 1979 (Nancy Buchanan/Ulysses Jenkins)

If you had the power to preserve a space or building in Los Angeles, what would you would protect?

The original Pasadena Art Museum. It was just so very dear to me. Some of my very, very, very, very best memories took place in that building. It had this pagoda kind of feel to it. Now that I think of it, the charm of L.A. is this kind of Hollywood, larger than life kind of feel, where they take Asian stuff or they take African stuff and they make it kind of fanciful and larger than life.

Conversely, what’s a building or feature you would tear down?

I don't know that I'd want to tear it down now but Foshay Junior High was the worst school I ever went to in my entire life. Oftentimes somebody would steal some gym equipment and we'd have to stay after school until someone fessed up, which they never did. It was Japanese kids, Korean kids, Mexican kids, black kids but very few white kids. Substitute teachers would come in and they would throw tomatoes at the teacher. There were fights every day. Boys are fighting girls. Then some of the teachers were way out there. There was a situation where two gym teachers were in the gym making out while we're on the field running laps. Then another science teacher got pregnant from someone at the school. I mean, it was crazy.

Two positive things. We always celebrated May Day and all of the classes had to learn May Day dancing. I was very excited about that because I loved dance. We had Maypoles and each grade would do a dance. That was really wonderful. And the other thing was Cal Tjader came to play. One of the faculty must have known him personally. There were a lot of great jazz clubs nearby on Western. Foshay was also my first experience with black teachers that taught math. They had some really great black teachers there. But I really, really hated Foshay. I don't even know how I survived it.

Black-and-white photo of the interior of Foshay Junior High School, in Los Angeles, California.
low res Black-and-white photo of the interior of Foshay Junior High School, in Los Angeles, California.

Foshay Junior High, Los Angeles, CA, 1925 (USC)

Besides the traffic, what’s one specific change you observed in Los Angeles over the period you’ve known it?

Have you ever been to See’s Candies? I think even now the employees wear these nice, starched uniforms. When I was a kid, everything was so neat and clean. It was very formal in a sense. That's how it was with the ice cream man or the Helms Bakery man. And the movie theaters have changed a lot. It's just so sad that we have to be in these little box theaters with nothing to them, not even curtains. The curtains at the Orpheum Theater were so magical. It gets you ready and then when the curtains open, all of a sudden it takes you to another place. The curtains conditioned you to see something special. That form of magic has gone away.

Conversely, what’s one thing that will never change—in other words, one thing in L.A. that is timeless? This can be as small as a doorknob or as large as the sky.

The beach. Venice Beach is like New York’s Times Square. It keeps changing but it's always interesting.

Black-and-white photo of David Hammons' art piece on Venice Beach, California, in 1977.
low res Black-and-white photo of David Hammons' art piece on Venice Beach, California, in 1977.

David Hammons, Hair and Wire, Venice, CA, 1977 (Bruce Talamon)

What is a place in LA that was described to you but you never got to see for yourself? In other words, a place that lives only in your imagination?

One of my favorite places is the downtown library. I used to work there in the '80s. I was in magazines and periodicals and we had some of the magazines that dealt with serial killers and true crime and we swore those people would come in and read the articles about themselves (laughs). Down in the basement there was a room where they kept all these mystical Masonic kind of books. And so they had all these nooks and crannies and I just loved that place so much. They filmed the first Ghostbusters down there in the basement.

What demolition broke your heart?

Two come to mind. The first one is the Lester Horton Dance Theater on Melrose. I took classes there when I was a little girl. It was one of the only places that gave dance lessons to girls of color. Maren Hassinger, who became one of my closest friends later on, also took classes there. Horton had recently died, so I never got to meet him. My teachers were James Truitt and Yvonne de Lavallade, who was Carmen de Lavallade's sister. I took a couple of buses to get there on a Saturday to take classes. It was a very important part of my life. In the '70s it got turned into a porn theater and then a sex shop. It really hurt for them to place something so historical and replace it with that.

The second one is the Arlington Dip. Are you familiar with the Arlington Dip? Arlington Avenue had a dip to it. At the top of that hill, on Pico and Arlington, there was a Catholic school that had been there forever. One day I was going down Arlington and I see these demolition people taking down the school. I thought, “Oh no, this can't be, this can’t be.” So I called Barbara McCullough, who's a filmmaker, because we all lived in the same area. She lived off La Salle. She brings her camera and there was one little segment they hadn't demolished. We ran in there and Barbara took some photos of me in a headdress. We got two shots. Pow, boom. That became "Rapunzel" (1981).

Photograph of Senga Nengudi performing "Rapunzel" in Los Angeles, California, 1981.
low res Photograph of Senga Nengudi performing "Rapunzel" in Los Angeles, California, 1981.

Senga Nengudi "Rapunzel," 1981 (Barbara McCullough)

Whose backyard you would return to if you could?

My mother's backyard at 5718 Mullen. It was just a block above Slauson behind the Buddha Market. She got a really charming house with a nice backyard for the dog to play in. She loved giving dinner parties and I remember her preparing food. The house had a built-in enclosed barbecue pit so you had that feeling of people flowing from inside to outside. My mother did things in such a lovely way. Even if we didn't have any money, she would still invite people. She’d make beans and cornbread and green, but she would serve it on silver and china, with champagne. She always had champagne.

What is the current view out your window or a view that you see on a daily basis?

I have lived in Colorado Springs since my husband and I left Los Angeles in 1989. Whenever I go out, I’m able to see Pike’s Peak. It's, as they say, America's mountain. It's just beautiful. It looks different every day. In the winter it's snow capped, and now it's bare, but it's still sunny and the leaves are changing. Not quite as dramatically as back east, but we have aspens, which are yellow and they glimmer with the sun and the wind and they have this chime kind of feeling to them. Sometimes it looks like a Japanese landscape with the clouds and everything. I'm inspired by it every day.

Can you describe a personal memento of Los Angeles—a token of the city you’ve kept in the form of an image or an object?

On our visits downtown when I was a girl, my mother would take me to eat at Clifton’s Cafeteria, which was such a magical place. As you would approach the door, there was a fellow outside with a Bible and one of those sandwich boards that said, “the world is coming to an end” and this and that. That’s been a tradition on that street for a very long time.

As I recall, it was a tri-level. On the upper level, there were these kind of false entryways, sorts of like catacombs, with these little wooden doors, just like I assume Jerusalem would be. So there were all these false kind of entryways that looked like very biblical Judeo kind of thing. The owner was quite religious, so there were these themes all over the place.

When I would go down to use the bathroom in the basement I would pass this huge statue of Jesus. I mean, huge. And you could sit on Jesus’ lap. So I climbed up on his lap. It was so much bigger than Santa Claus, you know what I mean? There was something about this three-dimensional situation that really moved me. It was my introduction to installation, my introduction to three-dimensional forms. I genuinely relate those visits to Clifton's to my interest in sculpture and my becoming an artist. ◆