Sign up for our free newsletter
Many artists are familiar with name-calling: “derivative,” “predictable,” “amateurish.” Few, however, have been called a witch. Renée Stout has—by her fiancé’s brother, no less, after he recently encountered pictures of her work on her Web site. “Not that I was insulted by the word,” says Stout.
She can’t be insulted because, after all, what she does is pretty witchy. Within her Shaw home is a small bedroom that Stout calls Fatima’s Room, named after her alter ego Fatima Mayfield, an herbalist and fortuneteller. Hugging the walls are curio cabinets that overflow with resins, magical worts, and aging photographs of hoodoo practitioners. Near the room’s entrance hangs a neon sign with an all-seeing eye and the text i can heal and readings $2. The latter line doesn’t light up.
Stout uses the room to display her artwork, which is nearly indistinguishable from the magical paraphernalia lying around. Those jars for nose bleed and arthritis—cures, not curses—she acquired from a Kansas City root dealer. But that neon sign was actually commissioned by the artist and sold in an edition of seven. As for the two withered tulip bulbs floating in a jar labeled lover’s hearts—2 for 50 [cents], they were a present from an old boyfriend, and Stout pickled them.
Stout, 48, feels drawn to a world that isn’t hers. She turned from representational painting to works inspired by African-diaspora religious traditions—the hybrid Catholic and slave practices developed across the New World—in order to reconsider the sculptural object. “I’m trying to meld them with a contemporary perspective, a way of looking at things,” says Stout. “I’ll take something I’ve bought, something I read, a symbol from voodoo or even Islam or the Jewish cabala—mystical things. Usually an idea will come to me, and I’ll think, What do I need to make it? I never know what I might do.”
Her sculptural career started in a big way, with a 1993 exhibition of carved wooden minkisi at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She’s since had solo shows throughout the nation. For her success, Stout can thank Fatima Mayfield, who she gradually adopted through her 40s and who appears in her work sometimes as a reference—for example, Fatima’s re-created sitting room in “Fragments of a Secret Life,” a 2005 installation at Hemphill Fine Arts—and sometimes as the ostensible creator.
Earlier personas Stout can also thank for inspiration include a rootworker named Dorothy, who appeared when Stout was in her early 30s, and Madame Ching, an alter ego later born from sketches of a woman she often spied in Pittsburgh. These alter egos, which Stout says began with imaginary friends in her childhood, allow the artist to explore a cultural tradition in which women assume roles as priestesses of hoodoo and Santeria.
“With Madame Ching, she was establishing a certain kind of credibility with this older, wizened woman—it was what Renée herself would become. Firm in herself, confident,” says Hemphill director Kimberly Gladfelter Graham, whose gallery represents Stout. “Fatima is a little bit more of who Renée is. She still gets away with more than Renée, even on the superficial level: Fatima is much more baroque, brazen, much more flamboyant visually. Of course, the artwork—the healing, the love, the desire, the kind of reveling in a certain cultural identity—they’re all hanging on the skeleton of the caricature, this alter ego.”
They also function as vehicles to help Stout solve her spiritual, relationship, and even financial problems. In this respect, the alter egos have been so productive that Stout lends their services to her acquaintances, as well, telling fortunes as Fatima and making bewitchment charms for others’ use.
“I’ve bought wigs; I’ve posed as Fatima,” Stout says, guessing that the “next stage” will be a performance as Fatima.
“[My fiancé] asked me once, ‘How much of this do you think is somebody speaking to you?’ ” Stout says. “I tell him, ‘Every once in a while, while I’m working in my studio, the character comes, and she has a life of her own.’ ”
Stout grew up in Pittsburgh, her mother an employee of the state’s workman-compensation board, her father a construction and renovation worker. For all the religious imagery in her work today, her parents never took her to church—much less to voodoo ceremonies. She did get some exposure from Baptist and Catholic grandparents, but the city’s art centers had a much larger impact.
“I would pass through the ‘ethno-centric’ areas,” Stout says about the museum collections she visited when she was young, “and I was fascinated. I was attracted to Afrocentric forms. Later on I realized the connection to voodoo, hoodoo, and Santeria through these spiritual objects, which were passed through the diaspora to Brazil, the Caribbean.”
Yet Stout developed as a fairly traditional representational painter at Carnegie-Mellon, where she received her BFA. In a twist, it was the similarly traditional African and diaspora artifacts that she encountered in a Columbia Heights botanica that transformed her work from painting to mixed-media modernity.
“When I first moved to D.C. [in 1985], there was a store at 14th and Euclid called Clover Horn,” she says. “It sold incense, candles, herbs, roots, oils. That was the beginning, for me, of going into a store and seeing those things.” Stout started a collection of botanica bits and pieces and began to incorporate them into art projects. “I started adapting them for my own purposes, whether it was for health, maybe protection,” she says. “The viewer doesn’t see that process; I’m doing it as a therapeutic process.”
Through the ’90s, Stout’s ideas arrived courtesy of her troubled block on O Street NW. “Anything I did in 1996, ’97, ’98, I was very upset with things going on in the neighborhood,” she says, noting that she could see through her studio window lines of homeless people at the food kitchen next door. “Why is it that we’re in the city that governs the whole country and nothing can be done?”
For her 1997 solo show in New York, Stout made Song of the Cicada, a large wishing wall inspired by violence in her ’hood. “There were two shootings [that I witnessed],” she says. “One was a drive-by that I heard, and I ran up to the window, then I saw a kid pulling his hand back. He had a gun, and he was on a bike. I looked in time to see another young guy slumped in a car—another young guy. These were both kids.”
Healing often figures into Stout’s sculptural alchemy. For “Fragments of a Secret Life,” Stout exhibited a piece called Healing Wand.
“Prior to her exhibition, Renée had visited a woman who had been [her] gallerist and a supporter. The woman was dying from cancer, and Renée knew that the visit was likely to be the last time she would ever see her dealer again,” says Graham. “Upon entering the airport, Renée went through the security check and set off a detector. She was scanned with the sensor wand that those security people use. Renée couldn’t help but think about how unfortunate it is that we put so much time, money, and energy in a war defense sense—why couldn’t we put the same amount of resources into a wand that wouldn’t just check for bombs in shoes but cellular ‘bombs’ in our bodies?”
With her neighborhood in the throes of gentrification, Stout might be taking a new turn with her art. A charm in one of her sketchbooks is accompanied by a story about her recent experience with a “duppy,” a mischievous imp that usually calls Jamaica its playground. Her duppy was a contractor named Tommy.
“He’s been pointing the bricks on my house since August 26 and he’s still not done,” Stout wrote. “Trys to stay in my business. Flirts and drops innuendos even though I’ve made it clear that I’m not interested.…I play music to let him know that he does not have my attention.…[F]unk like Ohio Players and stuff seems to keep him quiet and focused on what he’s doing. I’m going to have to spiritually cleans my whole house again once he’s done and gone.”
Men tend to hesitate at the door” of Fatima’s Room, Stout says. Perhaps they recognize these trinkets and charms for the pestilences they’ve served to inflict on men since the days of the New World sugar plantations: warts, fevers, dysfunction, possession. Or perhaps they saw “Fatima’s Dreams” at Barrister’s Gallery, a 2004 show that featured the sculpture Device to Stop a Man From Lying—a phallus connected with wires to a photo of a man in a jar.
Central to the room is one of Stout’s most-prized found objects, a fake wedding cake. Stout says it’s a tribute to the spurned spinstress in Dickens’ Great Expectations. “The whole idea of Miss Havisham having been jilted, holing up in her wedding dress, while snakes and rats eat away at her estate—that image fascinates me,” she says. “I just let the dust fall on it. I don’t touch it.”
Stout doesn’t exactly credit Fatima for her own impending wedding, but she does acknowledge that it’s the kind of coincidence that a person inclined to supernatural interpretations of the world might find telling.
“When I first conceived of Fatima, she was very leery of relationships,” Stout says. “But Fatima developed a love interest. He didn’t pressure her; there was a mutual respect there. His name was Sterling Rochambeau. He was from New Orleans, from a prominent black family, a long line of strong-willed women—a long line of rootworkers, which is why he was able to deal with Fatima.”
Not long after, Stout reconnected with a former boyfriend, Vincent Wilson. He seems to take his fiancée’s supernatural interests in stride and once even briefly adopted an alter ego of his own.
“There was a particular instance when Renée had written a piece that involved Sterling, and she sent it to me to read,” Wilson says. “I thought she was asking me to fill it in. It was a story, a vignette. She was saying she couldn’t come up with what Sterling would say. Well, my understanding Fatima is right there with my understanding Sterling, so I filled it in. I knew exactly what he was thinking.”