to walk a tightrope, whether between memory and experience, observation and interpretation, or reality and allusion.
Just as a tightrope implies states of balance and tension, so, too, do the choices that have historically confronted African Americans in the literary, performing, and visual arts. Does one address Afrocentric resources exclusively, embrace universal issues, pursue largely Eurocentric aesthetic goals, or strive, dauntingly, for a resonant synthesis?
Stout's approach is neither ideological nor literal, for she prefers to walk a tightrope, whether between memory and experience, observation and interpretation, or reality and allusion.
Stout's earliest exposure to creativity occurred as she grew up in a black working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh during the 1960s and 1970s. Lessons in how to "make do" and "create something from nothing" abounded in her family. Her mother's sewing, her father's mechanical abilities and penchant for collecting, a grandmother's flair for decorating, and an uncle's passion for painting and drawing all produced "wondrous results."3
Lessons in how to "make do" and "create something from nothing" abounded in her family.
Such experiences introduced Stout to her ancestry in ways that would later prove influential. In the early 1980s, however, the initial fruits of her adult training as a painter -- realist scenes inspired by Pittsburgh's streets and painters such as Edward Hopper and Robert Estes -- showed little evidence of their impact. In 1984 Stout's interest in painting declined considerably during an artist's residency in Boston.
This marked shift in Stout's work provided the first glimpse of her intuitive drive to heal and transform in artistic and spiritual terms.
After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1985, Stout completed the transition from painting to sculpture. Two years later, as she began making a series of mixed-media "fetishes," her interest in agents of power and magic had clearly incited Stout to explore artistic traditions and belief systems that originated in Africa and were often transformed in the Americas. Above all, she responded to the African understanding of art as a social practice embracing decoration, philosophy, religion, and medicine. Specifically, her childhood memory of a nkisi nkondi "nail fetish" ure led her to Kongo "power objects" called minkisi.5
These objects have been made for practical and spiritual purposes -- to heal physical and personal problems, to mediate between people and spirits good and bad, to effect change and invoke responses positive and negative.
Above all, she responded to the African understanding of art as a social practice embracing decoration, philosophy, religion, and medicine.
Created over a period of three years, Stout's "Fetish" series evokes this sense of contained forces. Examples such as Fetish #4 are neither literal reproductions nor ethnographic reclamations of the ritualistic icons that inspired her.6 Unlike the makers of minkisi who proceeded according to communal norms, Stout personalizes her intuitive combinations of forms and materials, always conscious that "it can be really hard to make the wood, the glass, the paint say it exactly the same way I'm seeing it in my head and feeling it in my heart. Sometimes a little can get lost in the translation."7
What has not gotten lost in the translation, however, is the equivalence that the artist grants to people and objects as gateways to her ancestry and mediators between past and present.
It can be really hard to make the wood, the glass, the paint say it exactly the same way I'm seeing it in my head and feeling it in my heart.
In such a work, the act of conjuring comes to mind as readily as the desire to memorialize. It is not just her grandmother's spirit but her own grief and admiration of a beloved family member that Stout has tried to capture and release in Fetish #4.
Summoning positive changes in human relationships, especially in the areas of health, work, love, and family life, is the goal.
Stout has not been unduly shy about the potential she grants herself as a woman and an artist, having incorporated, for example, a full cast of her body in one of her most important works, Fetish #2 of 1988. Certainly, she has embraced the inspirational, empowering functions of a conjurer in her transformation of materials and interpretation of ideas and feelings. Stout's sense of theater and performance, however, is equally strong.
Certainly, she has embraced the inspirational, empowering functions of a conjurer in her transformation of materials and interpretation of ideas and feelings.
Is Dorothy, the owner of the very neat conjuring table, about to step into her beautiful beaded slippers or has she just slipped them off? Has she conjured one of her love spells to keep Colonel Frank home with her or are we waiting for her to begin working with her roots, herbs, and talismans? Stout invites our curiosity and participation as members of an audience drawn in by a tantalizingly intimate array of objects. Our powers of observation and belief in magical properties are tested as we try to sort out actual found objects from those crafted by Stout to look like preexisting everyday and exotic objects from still others that she has found and subsequently reworked.
While Dorothy patiently awaits Colonel Frank's return, he faithfully sends her artifacts and souvenirs from his farflung travels for display in The Colonel's Cabinet. In actuality, the personal effects of Frank Davis, an acquaintance's deceased uncle who had once done military service, inspired Stout to create a reliquary devoted to relationships and self-awareness.
The artist has developed a select group of characters as kindred spirits or foils through whom she reveals her efforts to understand how she relates to other people and the world.
Inside the cabinet are samples of a secret language that Colonel Frank has gathered from an imaginary island's natives, Dorothy's ancestors. The same language appears in the book of spells accompanying Dorothy's conjuring table, handed down to her by her grandmother Madam Ching. In turn, Madam uses the language on the cards of her Old Fortune Teller's Board. She, too, is only semifictional, based on an old woman who advertised as Madam Ching in Stout's Pittsburgh neighborhood; the probability that she was a fortune-teller and rootworker is rather high in the artist's estimation. Relating to African traditions of divination, Board also evokes tarot cards, the I Ching, and Haitian folk religion.
Stout invites our curiosity and participation as members of an audience drawn in by a tantalizingly intimate array of objects.
Since 1994 Stout's identification with the old fortune-teller has become so strong that she has created a room-size installation of magical, even romantic, constructions that comprise Madam Ching's Museum of Love. Among its components is Madam's Desk, which is also part of the installation Madam Ching's Parlor.
Representing a crossroads, the detail is emblematic of Stout's perception of herself as an artist who mediates between chance and choice in hopes of forging a high, open road to creative change and insight.
Madam has already summoned the spirits to her desk in the form of an iconic painting of Erzulie Freda, the "sensual and elegant, flirtatious and frustrated" vodou goddess of love and romance,10 as well as a reliquary bearing the birthdates of the artist and her grandmother and inscribed, "Even in death you are my muse." The reliquary also features a small drawing of trees flanking two intersecting paths. Representing a crossroads, the detail is emblematic of Stout's perception of herself as an artist who mediates between chance and choice in hopes of forging a high, open road to creative change and insight.
Lynda Roscoe Hartigan
2. Michael D. Harris, "From Double Consciousness to Double Vision: The Africentric Artist," African Arts (April 1994): 52. Harris cited the saying in both Yoruba and English; in Yoruba, it reads "Owo eni la fi ntun oro eni se."
3. Artist's Statement (Washington, D.C.: B. R. Kornblatt Gallery, Inc., n.d.).
4. When Stout first saw this particular nkisi nkondi of the Bakongo, Congo, in 1968, it was in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Ten years later the Carnegie Museum of Art acquired the object by exchange.
5. The plural of nkisi is minkisi.
6. Made in 1989, Fetish #4 was destroyed in a fire in 1994.
7. Quoted from a letter to Robert Johnson in Stout's 1994 sketchbook, cited in Marla C. Berns, "On Love and Longing: Renée Stout Does the Blues," "Dear Robert, I'll See You at the Crossroads": A Project by Renée Stout (Santa Barbara: University of California University Art Museum, 1995), 25.
8. Stout, quoted in Michael D. Harris, "Resonance, Transformation, and Rhyme: The Art of Renée Stout," Astonishment and Power (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 139. Stout, interview with Harris, 1992.
9. Joseph Cornell Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Elizabeth Cornell Benton.
10. Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California, 1991), 246-52.