Acclaimed sculptor and performance artist Senga Nengudi has been awarded the prestigious 2023 Nasher Prize for Sculpture, reports the New York Times. She makes history as the first Black woman to receive the honor.

The international award is given to artists who are “continuing to speak with great force to the contemporary moment.” Also, it includes a $100,000 cash prize, an exhibition, and a series of public events in Dallas in March and April of 2023.

Over her distinguished five-decade-long career, Nengudi’s work has “mined everyday materials to explore concepts of ritual, femininity, Blackness, and the fragility of the body.” 

In an interview, she said she was extremely grateful to be awarded the prize.

“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,” she said.

Nengudi is best known for her series, R.S.V.P., where she uses stretched, knotted pantyhose that were weighted with sand, drawing inspiration from watching the transformation of her body after childbirth and from Black wet nurses “whose breasts stretched and sagged from suckling so many children who weren’t their own.” Debuting in 1977 at the Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York, the sculptures have been used in collaborative performances in many galleries, and non-art spaces, including an underpass on the Los Angeles freeway.

Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Prize, lauded Nengudi for her pioneering collaborations where she melds performance art and sculpture.

“In more recent years, the extraordinary creativity of the Black art community
which, in the ’70s and ’80s, was in many ways marginalized— is now being recognized. And so she occupies a critical place in the history of Black arts but also of art, period,”said Strick. “At a moment when the right of women to control their bodies has been taken away, she’s an artist whose exploration of female identity through works made with pantyhose speaks with great power and relevance.”

The Nasher Prize announcement follows several long-overdue accolades in recognition of Nengudi's vast contributions to the art world. In 2020, she was the subject of a retrospective that opened in Munich, Germany and was taken on the road to São Paulo, Brazil and Denver. Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation, recently announced that it will mount a long-term, multi-gallery installation of Nengudi’s art at its Beacon location beginning in 2023. The gallery will focus on Nengudi's work from the 1960s until today.

After receiving so many honors and tributes at this stage of her remarkable career, Nengudi says it’s like “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 added.