Conjuring a ‘shadow world’

Artist Renee Stout’s work “Renee Stout: Tales of a Conjure Woman” is at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

The vital and transformative nature of art is a reminder of the power we wield as human beings susceptible to the creative process: our ability to express and discern meaning.

Renee Stout is an artist who makes objects that are themselves transformations. Her mixed-media work reflects her long search for manifestations of West African culture in the landscape of the United States, and represents both an inward and outward exploration of identity and language.

“My work is inspired primarily by my African-American roots, but also other cultures,” she said. “As an artist, when I express myself honestly, I’m trying to access the curiosity of the child in me. That resonates with people because they are looking for some kind of truth and honesty, what it is to be a human being, period.”

Her show, “Renee Stout: Tales of the Conjure Woman,” opens Friday at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and runs through Dec. 14. It features mostly new work created especially for this exhibition.

The work falls outside of categories, according to Halsey director Mark Sloan, who has known and admired Stout for many years. “She is a spiritual healer, she is driven by this,” he said.

Stout, 55, said the cultural narrative she has constructed can seem strange, even threatening, to some viewers. It presents all the accoutrements of a traditional African medicine woman and challenges traditional Western values. That conflict, between a conjurer’s natural and supernatural gifts and accepted American practice and identity, is among the issues explored in Stout’s work.

When she was younger, she was very shy, so she invented an alter-ego, Fatima Mayfield.

Fatima, outgoing, even brash, practices hoodoo, a folk spirituality, and invokes her African ancestors, Stout explained.

“She works in the community. People come to her. But people are fearful because they don’t understand her,” Stout said. “They have to deal with who she is. She is a metaphor for how people reacted to my work.”

“As a young child and adult, I was very shy, I didn’t express myself fully,” she said. “So the alter-ego became a projection that I could embody so I could embolden myself. But as I matured and became less fearful of who I am, I can say whatever I want to say.”

Fatima, therefore, no longer needs to assert herself as an independent conjurer. “She’s been absorbed.”

Stout has found a fast friend in Ade Ofunniyin, a Charleston-born seeker and conjurer with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Ofunniyin was ordained a priest in the Yoruba tradition in 1980 when he was living in Harlem. So Stout’s work resonates; he can relate.

“She somehow channels a spirit that wants to be here, that wants to be here in this time to break up some of the ideas and myths that people have about conjure — about African science, that conjure is,” he said. “She’s willing to do that, and be provocative doing it. She’s not afraid.”

Stout started making art with crayons as a kid.

“When I was 3 years old, I scribbled on my Buster Brown shoes with an ink pen,” she said. “My mom didn’t get mad; she figured I’d grow up to make art like her brother did. She knew the creative impulse when she saw it, so she started bringing me all kinds of art supplies.”

One thing led to another.

As an older student, she trained as a painter at Carnegie Mellon University, located in her hometown of Pittsburgh. She had been fascinated by Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks,” which portrayed three late-night customers and a server at a city diner’s whose light seeps into the streets.

“I was intrigued by it because of the sense of mystery it had. It had a real narrative quality.”

She was painting on canvas, mostly photorealism pictures. At about the same time, Stout was exposed to African art: power objects, fetishes, masks and other pieces meant to bridge the divide between this world and the spirit world.

She took it all in.

In the mid-1980s, she enrolled in a residency program in Boston.

“I didn’t like Boston,” she said. “I turned inward, started to express myself, thinking about who I was as a person.”

She was processing all she’d seen, thinking about all she was.

It was time to leave Pittsburgh, she thought. So she went to Washington, D.C., and stayed with a friend for a while before settling in and making the city her own. It proved to be a good move, she said. She started showing her work in group shows. Her art was attracting attention.

Photorealism gave way to mixed-media, partly a result of her admiration for the artists Joseph Cornell (his “shadowboxes” and collages) and Betty Saar (her collages, assemblages and shrines that play with cultural stereotypes).

For a decade she gave up painting, preferring other media. When she started painting again in 2000, it was always on panel, not canvas. This gave the work a three-dimensional quality and allowed her to apply materials other than paint directly to the wood. Since then, she’s added photography, drawing, sculpture and more to her oeuvre.

Despite the critical success her work garnered, Stout has remained an artist on the periphery, an explorer who strives to remain true to herself, Sloan and Ofunniyin said. “She found her way to that truth ... through struggle,” Ofunniyin said. “You’ve got to realize there is a lot of misunderstanding, disdain, but that’s the way to freedom.”

Sloan first became acquainted with Stout in 1997, when he mounted the show “Wylie Avenue Juke” at the old Halsey gallery. That was just a few years after Stout’s breakthrough: a 1993 exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, called “Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout.”

That show featured ritual objects, “things that do things,” that demonstrated her growing interest in fortunetelling and the healing power of African sprituality.

“It put her on the map,” Sloan said of the show.

Flash forward to 2012 and an exhibit of Stout’s work at Benedict College’s Ponder Fine Arts Gallery in Columbia.

Sloan, once again mesmerized by the quality of her work, offered to organize a new show in Charleston, on condition that Stout create new art for it. She agreed (though a few already-made pieces will insinuate themselves into the Halsey).

“She’s doing something that no other artist I’ve encountered does,” Sloan said. It’s joyful but serious work, often created in the guise of a permeable alter ego, he said. It occupies a “shadow world,” known but rarely spoken of, populated by spirits, where Santeria and root medicine are practiced, where fortunes are told.

“My shows have become these kind of narratives that build on each other,” Stout said. “They are an accumulation of identity expressed in different ways.”

And now she is turning to other media, to fiction and filmmaking. Recently she bought a Canon EOS 70 camera, which can shoot high-quality video. It is part of her constant exploration.

“I’m challenging myself to step into things that I haven’t been trained for,” she said.

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