Many contemporary African-American artists have explored the psychological effects of the arduous road they had to endure in the American history. But fewer of these artists have incorporated spiritual underpinnings of the various forces that have shaped this journey. Renee Stout (b.1968), the first African-American artist to exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, is asking these very spiritual questions. Stout explores the issues surrounding the empowerment though faith (be it in a traditional or a more idiosyncratic format) and its use as a tool for dealing with oppressive socio-economic conditions. She does it through the prism of Hoodoo practices. Hoodoo is a form of traditional African-American folk magic that developed from a combination of beliefs from the West African tribes of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and present-day Ghana as as enslaved individuals from there were taken to America. Hoodoo is centered around animistic beliefs and rituals using naturally obtained supplies like herbs, minerals, and animals.
Private acts of faith are formalized into curated experiences by Stout as she creates installations centered around the figure of Fatima Mayfield, Stout’s alter ego who is a healer, herbalist, a fortune teller, and a spiritual advisor. Her assemblage pieces in a way serve as invitations to contemplate and experience the intimacy of the encounters. Solitary contemplation and a private, quiet moment are at the crux of Renee Stout’s powerful and mysterious art. In this her work is both an examination of history and a personal journey. Also, as I understand it conjuring or reaching out to outer realms is a way to control the fate when we do not have any significant measure control. From this standpoint, Stout’s art becomes part of the tradition and politics of the resistance.
Stout’s traveling museum exhibition, Tales of a Conjure Woman, which originated at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston, SC, was accompanied by a major monograph and was named one of the top 10 exhibitions of 2015 by Hyperallergic.
I spoke with Renee in March,2019 and below is our Q & A from this session.
Nina: Some of your assemblage pieces contain found objects. Where do you look for them and what stands behind your selection process? Do the serve as starting points or are more like fitting parts of your search for visual truth?
Renee: Most of my work involves found objects, but what people do not realize is that some of the objects are found and some of them are constructed. I like the idea of playing with the viewer. To make them think about any particular object and ask questions, was it found, was it constructed. And the way I go about doing my larger works is a very intuitive process. When I have an idea and I start to work on these pieces and then let’s say I go out to do some simple errands and I come across something that is lying on the street that is perfect for something I am working on. Or I find something and it generates its own ideas. It is a mixture.
You create installations and assemblage pieces or in other words private spaces of investigation and worship within the larger context of the museums. When people go to see a spiritual advisor they go overburdened with their private problems within a larger public space. Where does this idea come from and in what direction do you see it developing? Does this at all motivate you or is it something you do not conceptually analyze when creating?
No, this does motivate me quite a bit. What happens is that I love when something has a sense of mystery. And you want to know what is behind it, but at the same time certain things might not be there for you to know. And this idea of allowing my viewer to feel as though they looked at something private, they should not have been looking at. Yes, this whole idea of voyeuristic connotation.
Some of your works are named Behind the Curtain, Lotus Root, Formula for Seduction of Sterling Rochambeau, or Rearranging my Molecules to Deal with BS. How do you come up with poetic, elusive, and, yet, so fitting names for your pieces? You chose condensed images that are expressed in a word.
I think what it is is that there is a writer in me. Back in the 1990s I was hanging out with the poets in DC and they used to come to my studio for workshops and after that they would look at my art and give me feedback. One of the conclusions we came to was that as visual artists we create visual imagery, but poets also create imagery with their words and they liked the idea that sometimes text would end up in my work because it extended the metaphor of the visual. It took the viewer to another level to read the words and I like how these texts can create interesting images within the readers mind with well-chosen words so titles became important.
Why did you turn to Voodoo/Hoodoo themes and to folk magic as an artist?
I think I just wanted to process what I was seeing in those traditional African pieces (for example Nkisi power figures) and what they meant for the African-American spirituality. Those connections and those retentions from the old cultural themes that I have seen in New Orleans or in other parts of the country with the large African-American communities. Although most African-Americans are Christians there are still religions they have retained even in their Christianity, so I was trying to make those kinds of connections, but I was basically turning to these less organized religions because as an African-American I do not personally feel that Christianity has served us well in this country.
Why do you think this is the case?
Leaving aside all this ongoing current dialogue about white supremacy as a person with critical mind I can clearly see that Christianity is dominantly a white religion. In this country God is white. And if this is the case then there is an inherent supremacy in the religion itself. And I do not see as Christianity itself changing in any positive way, but rather evangelicals highjacking the religion and because the government needs their votes it is bending down to their demands against people from other cultural or religious backgrounds. But I feel that we are at crossroads when everybody who has been suppressed or oppressed is starting to ask questions. And younger people are starting to question everything. Younger generation is getting ready to get the baton and are not going to let the older generation to hold onto it forever.
How is Fatima Mayfield doing these days? Is she still part of your artistic identity?
I am an introvert and when I was younger, I was a shy person, it was hard for me to stand up and express things. In the hindsight, the alter ego was developed as a way to really project my real self and she became this really strong woman who was had this presence, a woman who knew how to affect change and as I realize now I projected whom I hoped I will become and that is why she became this sort of vehicle for me to create an artwork. What I think is happening now is that I am a mature woman, so I don’t feel like I have to hide behind or to project it anymore because I became that, I have grown into that, I gave myself permission to just be the woman I needed to be. Having this alter ego to work out things and project helped me to evolve.
In terms of the root work and herbal medicine aspect of this alter ego do you see it changing?
I feel that the character itself has changed and I feel like I do not need to use her again now. Where I see myself moving is into more holistic view of the way I create art because even with the root work and the herbalism I would like to see more of that in the larger society and I do not believe in the big pharmaceutical companies. I think we need to get back into traditional remedies, into basic remedies like teas, roots, from the time we were close with nature and where we should be returning. My work is about taking the power back, in opposition to be highjacked by the big business. People have to realize that we need to move away from this unsustainable system that we are currently in. The root work, the spiritual ideas, the political ideas that I have in my work I will continue with because they are all still there.
To me personally, idea of Mayfield was the case of alter ego taking back the power. The idea of practical magic even if you take it only as an idea and not the physical actuality of it. That was how it came across to my mind.
I think the intent if I had to sum it up in terms of the alter ego and of what I have been doing all along was the idea of resistance, a word that has been thrown around so much recently. Going against the grain of what is considered the mainstream male-dominated society that sometimes you need to completely remove yourself from a system and start a new one. We need to stop looking for permission, they are not going to give it up. They are too comfortably situated for that. Why would we need to ask them permission on what to do with our bodies. And the issue is that we do not acknowledge this imbalance.
Do you see dynamic in this particular aspect within the community of the African-American artists?
I definitely see the dynamic and we are the least accepted anyway and I think we have adapted and decided to make the work we want to make. Only a few of us has been chosen to participate in this greater art world so the art world so things are getting being made anyway.
Because as with any kind of true art you need to make it, it needs to come out of your system. As in writing, you have this urge.
Yes, you need to make it when you need to make it. Yes, exactly. And this is an understanding between me and the galleries I work with. One thing I made them understand early on was that I was never going to make work geared towards market. These works are all about the ideas and the content. They learned it with me, there is always somebody for everything. So, no matter what I communicate through my work it may resonate with somebody. I am not buying this ‘I am creating a grand thing’ narrative.
Have you ever yourself wanted to become part of the more organized Hoodoo groups or you just decided to stand on the outside and look through?
It is definitely quite interesting because at different points in my life I get readings done and they have proven helpful. Several of the readers told me of a different energy they get from me, telling me not to worry about getting initiated, to keep doing what I am doing. So, I take this to mean that I need to stay with the art that I am creating. And also, I realized that when you are initiated it is a big responsibility and it almost becomes the thing itself, especially if you are going to be helping other people, advising them and I do not see that I can do that and be an artist, and be present in my studio the way I need to be. I think I just need to do what I am doing.