Feature Articles

October 2013

College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, Features Works by Renée Stout

College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, will present Tales of the Conjure Woman, featuring a major traveling exhibition of new works by Washington, DC, artist Renée Stout, on view in the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, from Oct. 18 through Dec. 14, 2013. A reception will be held on Oct. 18, from 6:30-8pm.

Stout is best known for her exploration of vestigial retentions of African cultural traditions as manifested in contemporary America. For many years, the artist has used the alter ego Fatima Mayfield, a fictitious herbalist/fortuneteller, as a vehicle to role-play and confront issues such as romantic relationships, social ills, or financial woes in a way that is open, creative, and humorous. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s assumed role through an array of works in various media. As Stout explains, “The common thread running through bodies of my work of the past several years is the continuing need for self-discovery and the need to understand and make sense of human motives and the way we relate and respond to each other.”

Curated by Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute, the exhibition will also feature a video about the artist and a 174-page hardcover catalogue. The video, produced by Sloan and videographers Brady Welch and Colin Sonner will include interviews with Stout at her studio in Washington, DC, insight into her creative process, and will feature an interview with Fatima Mayfield. The catalogue will include essays by several contributors, including Mark Sloan, Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and award-winning poet/essayist Kevin Young.

Further educational programs will include artist talks, exhibition tours for the public, and a free gallery guide that outlines the basic tenets of Stout’s enterprise along with an abbreviated interview between Fatima Mayfield, conducted by Dr. Ade Ofunniyin and a biography of the artist.

Stout’s work explores the contours of the African American experience and the existence of an underground system of African-derived folk beliefs as transmitted from slavery to the present. This system, known variously as Hoodoo or conjuring, has its origins in herbal medicine, root work, and a belief in the spiritual attributes of plants and animals. The words “conjure” and “Hoodoo” sound vaguely familiar, yet their specific meanings are elusive. These traditions have had to morph and adapt to several new sets of cultural conditions, including plantation life, Christianity, and the vagaries of modern urban existence. This conjuring tradition persists, although it is rarely spoken of in public.

Hoodoo and conjuring are primarily used for beneficent purposes-helping, not harming-and are essentially “practical magic.” They are most often evoked for protection, guidance, and good luck, often as a complementary system to Christianity. Today, it is not hard to find a commercial store or Internet-based provider that sells candles, oils, herbs, powders, and incense, which clearly proves that a thriving community still exists of folks who actively participate in this seemingly invisible sociocultural system. Stout has been exploring this conjuring cosmology through her art since the 1980s.

Utilizing two alter egos, Madam Ching and Fatima Mayfield, Stout has managed to illuminate the contemporary Hoodoo landscape by presenting viewers with objects and images that focus our attention on these shadowy traditions. Starting with Madam Ching, the artist’s first alter ego, Stout, in her thirties at the time, created works in the guise of a herbalist/fortune-teller/spiritual advisor who was wise beyond her years. This character allowed Stout to espouse things that she herself did not feel comfortable saying or doing. She has stated: “In my shyness, I saw her [Madam Ching] as a vehicle to enable me to step out of myself and examine various issues I was confronting in my life at that time. In hindsight, she was the projection of the woman I hoped to become.”

Her second alter ego, Fatima Mayfield, seamlessly emerged several years later, unbeknownst to Stout. She says: “One day the realization hit me that Madam Ching was no longer separate from me: I had become her, because, at that point, I had resolved many of the issues I had faced in that early phase of my life, and had grown into the woman I needed to be to move forward.” Fatima also helps people get to where they want to be. This fictional healer uses charms, amulets, powders, oils, goofer dust, candles, and roots to work her magic. Fatima’s world contains such colorful, recurrent characters as Black Nine, Pretty Poison, and Sterling

Rochambeau, to name a few; each one challenges her in different ways. One client may be looking for love while another seeks good luck with the lottery, but there is always trouble. Fatima grows weary baring their burdens and seeks guidance from the spirits. All of this is transmitted through an act of poetic conjuring, as Stout has managed to create a plausible, palpable presence for Fatima’s and her reading room through her art. Utilizing found objects, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, glassblowing, installation, and compelling storytelling, Stout brings the viewer into Fatima’s lair. Such attention to the surface of each piece allows the artist to imbue each object with her own mojo.

Tales of the Conjure Woman offers a peek into a fascinating world ruled by superstition and ancestral wisdom. Fatima Mayfield offers her best advice and works her roots. Stout is an able guide, but she only leaves a trail. Her role is to awaken us to the unseen forces at work all around us-to heighten our senses. Through her art, we are presented a prism that enables us to view a particular aspect of the rich traditions and cultural practices of African America.

Renée Stout grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and received her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1980. Originally trained as a painter, she moved to Washington, DC, in 1985 where she began to explore the spiritual roots of her African-American heritage through her work.

Inspired by the African Diaspora, as well as her immediate environment and current events, she employs a variety of media, including painting, drawing, mixed media sculpture, photography and installation in an attempt to create works that encourage self-examination, introspection and the ability to laugh at ourselves and the absurdities of life. Her vast exhibition history includes solo shows at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington, DC; The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, LA; David Beitzel Gallery in New York, NY, and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Pittsburgh, PA.

Stout has also been included in group exhibitions at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA; The Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore, MD; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA; and Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; among several others.

Stout has been the recipient of awards from The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Bader Fund, The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the High Museum’s Driskell Prize. Most recently, Stout received the 2012 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.

For further information check our SC Institutional Gallery listings, call the Institute at 843/953-4422 or visit (www.halsey.cofc.edu).

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