AFTER THE “R.S.V.P.” series, Nengudi began working on increasingly ambitious projects while continuing to experiment with found materials and nontraditional spaces. In “Masked Taping” (1979), she covered her body from the knees up in pieces of masking tape and had herself photographed as she moved about her darkened studio as a ghostlike outline. And in a 1996 solo exhibition, “Wet Night — Early Dawn — Scat Chant — Pilgrim’s Song,” she used found objects like baking pans, dry cleaner bags, chopsticks and Santeria candles to pay homage to religious iconography and the relationship between the real and unreal.
But in 2003, she returned to the “R.S.V.P.” series, recreating some of her original nylon sculptures, after her friend Lorraine O’Grady insisted “there was still energy in them.” By this time, Nengudi was in a different stage of her life. She was teaching at the University of Colorado and caring for her ailing mother, who had been paralyzed by a stroke (she died in 2004). Remaking the pieces was a challenge. First, the nature of the materials had changed: “You think of pantyhose as pantyhose, but no, they have different crotches; they have different elasticity,” she said in the Smithsonian oral history. But she was also a different person, and in the process of preparing these works, Nengudi began to reflect anew on how they related to her own body. Whereas she had once seen them as a metaphor for new motherhood, she now began to see them in relation to the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child, something she hadn’t even told her mother about. “I’ve never really mentioned it, because I didn’t want my work to be seen with a narrow lens,” Nengudi said. “But there are some elements in there that I think have to do with that abuse.”
She was between 10 and 13 years old and living in Los Angeles. It was one of her mother’s boyfriends. She feared talking about it, because he had threatened to kill her mother if she did. In remembering this period, Nengudi expressed appreciation for the way her mother, who was also being abused by the boyfriend, brought her into the decision-making process. When Nengudi’s mother had enough money to leave the relationship, she had two choices — purchase a car or rent a new home. She asked Nengudi what she wanted to do. “I said, ‘If we get a car, then we can run away,’ and she says, ‘OK, that’s what we’ll do,’” Nengudi said.
The pandemic has made Nengudi reflect more about what had happened to her as a child, because she’s been thinking about children for whom home is not a safe space: What will happen to them, to their bodies? For more than half her life, in her distortions of the human form, she has been exploring how we occupy our own bodies. “I often say, the psyche as well as the body can, you know, stretch and come back into shape,” she said. “But sometimes it doesn’t.” This may not have been the original intention of the works, but it is what they have become: a story of bodies in transformation, acting and being acted upon, doing their best to exist in the world.