Senga Nengudi (4 stars)

Senga Nengudi

Courtesy the artist; Lévy Gorvy, New York, London; and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York. Photo: Harmon Outlaw

Exhibition recognising a trailblazer in sculpture

Prior to closing for redevelopment in July, the Fruitmarket hosts a survey show by the African-American artist Senga Nengudi curated by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Now in her 70s, Nengudi is enjoying belated recognition after 40 years of work addressing themes of race and gender; 2017 saw her included in both the Venice Biennale and the Armory Show in New York.

In 1969, she set out to challenge the hard-edged geometric minimalism of the time with her 'Untitled Water Compositions', vinyl tubes filled with coloured water which look like giant ice-poles. They're cheerful, tactile and have a sense of humour (something minimalism isn't renowned for).

Nengudi's sculptures often use materials which are hard to preserve and hard to collect: water, sand, newsprint, nylon. 'Sandmining' is a recent work, sculpted on the floor in sand and pigment, referencing modernism and abstract expressionism. 'Bulemia' is a room covered with newspapers, referencing an artistic utopia she dreamt up with a friend, the pages selected for their positive messages – 'the way we are', 'empire in transition', 'family before fame'.

In 1977, Nengudi began to make sculptures using pairs of tights stretched and weighted down with sand to create anthropological forms. She says she liked the way the material mirrored the flexibility and resilience of the body – and being able to pack an entire exhibition in her handbag. These works are clever and quirky, managing to address themes of race and gender with the lightest of touches.

Her subsequent shift into performance was a natural progression and the remaining works here are photographs of the costumes and props she made for performances using rubber, paper, wire and (ubiquitously) tights. These works are ephemeral, but that doesn't mean they're not clever or profound. Nengudi's work strikes a chord today with its themes, its materials and, perhaps particularly, its ability to retain its sense of humour.

Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 26 May.

Senga Nengudi

A comprehensive overview of the career of the trailblazing American artist, with some of her best-known works from the 1970s to the present.

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