Eyes of Understanding: Renée Stout Creates Vessels for the Spirits

Artist: Renee Stout, Pretty Poison
Pretty Poison by Renée Stout
Based in Washington, DC, Renée Stout has been creating some very intriguing artwork for over twenty years, and the level to which she has intricately woven elements of African-based spiritual systems throughout each piece is truly fantastic. Although I would have guessed that Stout started out as a photographer (the composition of her prints suggest authorship to one with a very "photographic eye"), she began her career as a painter, moving into sculpture, mixed-media works, installation and printmaking. Luckily, I stumbled upon her Web site a few years ago, and found her on-line platform to be as strikingly clever as the work she has featured on it.

Being the "first religions"-ophile that I am, it would take no genius to figure out that I think Renée Stout's work is the absolute capital SH12. My gemini sun makes me ridiculously chatty, so I kid you not when I say that this interview, easily, could have developed into a neverending RSS feed. While wrapping this interview up, bad move for Renée to mention her group show that includes photographer Renee Cox and mixed-media artist Faith Ringgold (truly, how awesome is that?), for the temptation to draw out this discussion almost kicked into high gear.

I'm a huge fan, and I'd like to thank Renée Stout for her time, flexibility and putting up with all of my gushing. Being on my very lengthy list of women artists of African descent who I would love to have over to my studio and lavish with a meal (seriously, I'll cook for you all), I consider the development of this post just the next best thing....

KAREN MIRANDA AUGUSTINE: I came across your site by chance and was struck by the "I CAN HEAL" photo on your splash page. It reminded me of Trustee, this great image by Destiny Deacon, an Australian Aboriginal artist. The photograph is of a mannequin, painted black, wearing a baseball cap that reads, "Trust me! I am a witchdoctor" — and both Deacon's and your images make me smile. A few posts back, I interviewed Rhonda Divine Ratray, who, like yourself, also creates under a an alter ego. You create under the guise of Fatima Mayfield, a storefront healer. Ratray spoke of the freedom of creating under the guise of a fictional character, which I assume you must feel also. Yet judging from your work, I also get the sense that there is some crossover between your healer alter ego and the artist healer as well. Is this a fair assumption?

Artist: Renee Stout, Follow Me Bos (Detail)
Follow Me Boy (detail) by Renée Stout

RENÉE STOUT: Yes, the crossover between Fatima Mayfield and Renée Stout is a fair assumption. I was having a discussion with a few people just yesterday about when and why the alter egos came about. It started when I was in my early 30s and was born of a need to understand myself better and my relationship to the people around me, no matter if they were family, friends or strangers. Through the alter ego I was able to project a personality that would have the attributes that I wanted it to have and were probably ones that I wished I had. It gave me the freedom to set up and act out scenarios in a way that was more objective and, by creating art and stories through and about this alter ego, I began to learn much more about myself and I also gained a better understanding of how people perceive me.

I actually used the alter ego to help heal past hurts and guide me in choices that I needed to make in my personal life. I know that sounds crazy, however I figured out why I’m doing this: so often we are told that we should learn to trust our inner voice. Sometimes we do, but then self-doubt can often creep in. My way around that was to take that strong, wise inner voice and give her a name: Fatima Mayfield. Renée may second guess herself sometimes, but Fatima Mayfield doesn’t. She stays in my ear saying, “Do this” or “Do that,” and I trust that she knows because she comes from that deep part of me that’s more connected with the universe. She’s from that more spiritual and intuitive place that dealing within a society such as this can take you out of, if you let it. Fatima keeps me grounded.

KMA: I love the complexity of your screen prints. They are so painterly and rich with information. Burn for Love is a great example. So much of your work reads like short stories, vignettes, especially when one considers that this is Fatima Mayfield recounting clients' tales. Could you speak on the narrative taking place in pieces like Fatima and Black 9 and Burn for Love?

Artist: Renee Stout, Burn for Love
Burn for Love by Renée Stout

RS: Many times the narratives I set up in my stories and vignettes have their seeds in some exchange that took place in my real life. Most often those tales are embellished, but sometimes life can actually be stranger than anything I could make up. Most often it’s about the way men and women miscommunicate. We just don’t seem to speak the same language and this often creates some really absurd situations. But I have a sense of humour, so that even if the situation is painful, the works or narratives that are inspired from it end up having a humorous edge. In the end I want to be able to laugh at myself and whatever my human shortcomings and insecurities are, and I hope that in the process of experiencing my work, others can do the same.

KMA: What I find most compelling is your layering of death/crossing over/renewal references from numerology, New Orleans Vodou, and Nigerian spiritualism of Ifá: the number 9 representing completion and the highest level of spiritual vibration; the Ghedes, a powerful group of Loas that oversee the dead; and, Exús (tricksters, overseers of cemeteries, beings straddling the place between life and death) like Legba as represented in alter offerings and intricate veve symbols. These are all very powerful symbols and Loas. What is it about their power and purpose that you have found to be sources of inspiration?

Artist: Renee Stout, Dance of the Ghedes
Dance of the Ghedes by Renée Stout

RS: My interest in all that you mentioned above started when I became aware that those alternative belief systems existed. As an African-American child who was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the only religion I was exposed to was Christianity. I knew that Africans who were part of my ancestry (I also have Native American and Irish ancestry as many African Americans do) were brought to the Western hemisphere as slaves, but their religious beliefs were not talked about. My interest in African art brought me to the discovery of these belief systems.

I was inspired because in trying to figure out who you are as a human being, you always need to go back to the source, and I had never been taught in school how rich those cultures were and are. Studying these African belief systems allowed me to understand that there was another way, besides Christianity, of trying to understand and make sense of the universe and our existence, and I’m always open to many points of view about that.

I keep coming back to Haitian Vodou because of the way those beliefs are expressed in such an outwardly creative and highly visual way. I love New Orleans because you can feel all of that just under the surface. I like that the stories of the Loas show them to have some human or imperfect qualities. I like that there is room for humour in the spiritual. I like that the religion is adaptable to its surroundings and circumstances (which has enabled it to survive). Everything about it mirrors the way I think and create.

Artist: Renee Stout, Slow Voyage from the Land of Cosmic Slop
Slow Voyage from the Land of Cosmic Slop by Renée Stout

KMA: For those of us within the African diaspora, I think that the connection between self-empowerment and connecting to that which is spiritually relevant is really important (it is something that you successfully interweave throughout your body of work). And you've touched on this when you mention the importance of exploring your ancestry.

Christianity, Paganism, Judaism, Native American, even goddess reverence — particularly Greek or Hindu — in terms of openly discussing those practices, their relevance is quite widely made known, particularly for academic study. With some exception to passing Egyptian references, there is a significant lack of attention given to West African (or any other regions of the continent) when it comes to African spiritual practice. This lack of attention to African culture is across the board; for example, in Toronto, the school board recently approved the development of an Afrocentric school in order to engage the 40% Black youth dropout rate in high schools. Taking situations like this into account, if one is to attempt to make sense of his/her life, to understand its purpose and to appreciate its historical significance, in what ways do you see knowing our African belief systems as leading to potential self-possession?

RS: I think that if one is to study one’s history, it should be studied in its totality. It seems that African-based spiritual belief systems are the last missing piece to the puzzle when it comes to studying the history of African Americans and other people of African descent throughout the diaspora. And everyone, including people of African descent, is afraid to pick that piece of the puzzle up and drop it in its place in order to complete the big picture.

People have begun to acknowledge the influence of Africa on music, art, dress, etc., but spiritual beliefs inspired by African cultures seem to be the last taboo. I think this is because the cultures that people of the African diaspora find themselves in are, for the most, part dominated by Christian-based beliefs. In my opinion, Christianity (ironically) is one of the most intolerant religions when it comes to other belief systems, although I don’t think that’s how it originally started out. I am speaking from where I am when I say that if you are open to anything other than Christianity as a viable system to make sense of your existence, you are looked at with suspicion.

Artist: Renee Stout, Truth Telling
Truth Telling by Renée Stout

It’s really hard for people of African descent to have great self-esteem when you are constantly being sent the message that your origins had little to contribute to the celebration and acknowledgement of a higher power and the development of human history in general.

The problem you mention in the Toronto school system is no different than the concerns about the dropout rate that an artist/teacher friend of mine has been expressing daily about the Rochester Public School system, or that my retired teacher friend expressed about the DC Public School System. By leaving a glaring omission about any real contributions of people of African descent in the school curriculum, schools are sending the subliminal message that our past and what we contributed was, and is, minimal and unimportant, and if that’s the message that children are getting, what would inspire them to think that they have something important to contribute presently, and in the future?

KMA: There is an interesting tension between the negative projection of African belief systems and what these belief systems really are. This being the case, there must be some form of education and dialogue that results from your work. In America, the African diaspora seems to be much more open, engaged, and somewhat more savvy, than say for example in Canada, in regards to African-based spirituality. Haitian Vodou especially seems to be the one area in particular that is singled out as being especially "dark" — its purpose being thought to have associations with ill will. All this in mind, have you noticed interesting developments in how your earlier works were received and understood to how they are now?

RS: My work, both early and recent, is still a little hard to digest for most people, whether they are African-American or not. Once again I think it’s because within my bodies of work I am asking people to consider alternative ways of seeing the world and that isn’t easy for people to do when they are locked into a specific set of rules about how we should see our world.

There was actually more interest in my work earlier on in my career. However, the art world, and our culture in general, has become increasingly about commerce, money and fashion. My aesthetics and philosophy about why I make art and the way I make art have diverged with the attitude within the current art world.

Artist: Renee Stout, book cover of Readers, Advisors and Storefront Churches
Readers, Advisors, and Storefront Churches (book cover) by Renée Stout

KMA: You've had some really impressive exhibitions and scholarly discussions on your work. I'm going back now, but I admit to being a bit of an active follower of both Olu Oguibe and Robert Farris Thompson, as well as the Saars in general. Oguibe especially has been putting out some really interesting readers and articles on a vast range of contemporary African art. Thompson's writing of the exhibition Astonishment and Power (National Museum of African Art), I'm assuming, was a show with yourself and Betye Saar? If so, I could see how well the pairing of your works would be in creating very interesting dialogue. Pray tell, who else have you been collaborating with more recently?

RS: Astonishment and Power was curated by Wyatt MacGaffey and Michael Harris. Robert Farris Thompson was only brought in to do a lecture at some point during the run of that show. Betye Saar was not in the show. It was a solo show and the idea of it was to exhibit my work that had been inspired by Congo Minkisi alongside famous Minkisi that were in collections from around the world so that viewers could understand the connection between these ancient spiritual beliefs and how they resonated with a contemporary artist of African descent (me).

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to collaborate on an installation with an artist named Michael Platt who lives here in DC. And most recently, I did the illustrations for a book in progress for his wife who is a poet. But other than that, I’ve been working pretty much alone in my studio.

KMA: I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about the importance of Congo Minkisi. Many have some basic awareness of African medicine sculpture: Central Africa's Nkondi figures are probably the most well-known. Definitely, the Minkisi, in form and philosophy, are present throughout so many diasporic forms of African spiritual practice: the Rara Festival in Cuba, the altars of Macumba and Candomblé practitioners throughout Brazil, as well as in root healers in North America, which I can see so beautifully incorporated in your works, particularly in the "Roots and Charms" section of your Web site.

RS: My first encounter with an Nkisi came when I was ten years old, taking Saturday art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art. I was one of hundreds of Pittsburgh Public school children who were chosen to participate in a program for the “artistically gifted.” We’d meet at the museum on Saturday mornings where a locally well-known artist/teacher would give us a lecture on art for about half an hour in the museum’s auditorium, then he would lead us into the galleries of the Natural History part of the museum where we would draw from the displays for the next hour. It was on one of these Saturday mornings that I first saw an Nkisi. I was intrigued by it and the image stuck with me, but I wouldn’t begin to understand what I was looking at until many years later.

Artist: Renee Stout, A Sordid Desire
A Sordid Desire by Renée Stout

I moved to DC in 1985 and discovered the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution) and its extensive and wonderful collection of African objects. It was at that time that I began to make the connection to the fact that as an African-American, I am a descendent of a people from a continent with a variety of rich spiritual belief systems. I wanted to know more because the philosophy and the aesthetics of what I was seeing spoke to me more than anything else I had encountered before. What I was seeing was the true mirror for my personhood in a way that the Christian images I had seen (white Jesus, etc.), had never been.

What helped is that my parents had never indoctrinated me with any religion, even though they always made sure that my sister and I understood that there was a God and that we should conduct our lives knowing that a higher power was always watching us. The gift in their approach was that, unlike most people, I had no fear when I started to investigate the Minkisi. I didn’t feel that the Christian version of God was going to strike me down for looking into my spiritual history. But beyond that I had an open mind and no fear when it came to looking at other belief systems from around the world in general. I don’t feel I could be the artist that I am today, doing the kind of work that I do, if my parents had placed religious restrictions on me. When it came to religion, I was allowed to question.

As I said before, the Minkisi became the jumping off point for me to explore a spirituality that included ancestors, nature, human creativity and a myriad of other things. However, because of my work with those specific forms (Minkisi), people seem to not understand that the work that I’m doing now is a continuation of what began with those forms, even though the work has taken a different form. Everyone seems to have locked me into a specific time in my work, not understanding that as an artist I have to evolve. I take the same philosophy into my recent work (which includes drawings, photographs, paintings, sculpture and installations) that I took into the work that was inspired by the Minkisi. I now see every work I do as a form of Minkisi, even if it’s a painting. The same way those early African artists created the Minkisi as vessels for the spirits of nature and the ancestors to inhabit so that they could protect and guide them, I am hoping that each of my works functions as a vessel for the spirits in the same way.

Artist: Renee Stout, Oil Number 12
 Oil Number 12 by Renée Stout

KMA: Which artists would you identify as having made a great impact on your practice and why?

RS: I was originally trained as a painter, so early on my influences were Edward Hopper and many of the photo-realist painters like Robert Cottingham, Richard Estes and Ralph Goings. A few years later after graduating from college I discovered the work of first, Joseph Cornell, then, Betye Saar. They were the biggest influences on my decision break from painting into sculpture. My period of box-making was highly influenced by those two artists [Cornell and Saar], but as I matured and got into the aesthetics and spiritual philosophy behind the Minkisi, my work developed a different presence. While the Minkisi were a big influence aesthetically, what they represented spiritually became the gateway for me to look inside of myself.

These days, I look more toward the work of “untrained,” “folk” or “outsider” artists from around the world when I want to have an art experience that’s pleasurable, insightful and inspiring. There are very few artists within the current art world (New York, Art Basel Miami) that inspire me in the same way. I get most of the ideas for my work from just living life: hearing a snatch of conversation while I’m having a cup of coffee at Starbucks, hearing a line in a song as I’m dancing in a club, looking at peeling paint on the side of a deteriorating building, or seeing (and collecting) a lost hair extension laying on a city sidewalk.

KMA: What upcoming exhibitions and projects can we expect to see from you in the future?

RS: My last solo show was in September 2007 at the gallery here in DC that represents me, so I won’t be having another one for another year or so. But this summer I’m participating in a couple of group shows around town. One of them is up currently and is titled She’s So Articulate: Black Women Artists Reclaim the Narrative. The participating artists, along with myself, are Maya Asante, Renee Cox, Stephanie Dinkins, Djakarta, Nekisha Durrett, Torkwase Dyson, Faith Ringgold, Erika Ranee, Nadine Robinson and Lauren Woods.

Currently I am trying to figure out how to make a short film in which my alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, goes about her day making magic and helping the characters in her neighbourhood solve their problems.

Please visit Renée Stout's Web site at ReneeStout.com.

IMAGES: Copyright of Renée Stout. Reprinted with permission of the artist.


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