Magazine article Sculpture

Formal Divination: Renee Stout

Magazine article Sculpture

Formal Divination: Renee Stout

Article excerpt

The quiet nuances on the surface of Renee Stout's work are just the tip of the iceberg, though the subterranean rumblings may be hard to decipher without a fundamental knowledge of Yoruba, Vodoun, and Hoodoo culture. Stout's metaphors are steeped in mysticism and the undercurrents of a spiritual world made material. Her sculptures, installations, and two-dimensional works spanning three decades reinterpret aspects of belief systems culled from the Congo, West Africa, Haiti, and New Orleans and reconfigure those ideas through a personal iconography. Systems of divination and conjuring, as well as her personal deities and their related signs and symbols, are subsumed into thoughtprovoking works designed to conceal as much as they reveal.

When I first I entered Stout's home studio three years ago, the parlor was almost completely white. My eyes gravitated to a huge fireplace and a shelf laden with bottles of perfume, some empty and others containing remnants of scent. The attractiveness of the vials might explain their presence in such abundance, but I saw vestiges of Oshun, Yemaja, and Oya. Oya governs the wind, Oshun is a river deity, and Yemaja is the mother of the seven seas. Was Stout's ruling deity Oshun or Yemaja? I wasn't sure. Oshun is known for her generosity and sensuality, and Yemaja is the source of all living things - both respond to perfume and mirrors and are goddesses of feminine beauty. I learned later that Yemaja looms large among Stout's pantheon of spirits. On that visit, I also noted a back room filled with materials that Stout had collected over the years; it appeared to be a private space that I dared not enter without an invitation.

Stout made her debut in "Astonishment & Power," a 1993 exhibition at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, where her votive objects were shown in tandem with spiritually charged power figures from the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Sculptures used to heal and protect, Nkisi figural containers, or minkisi, are often covered with innumerable pouches of herbs and medicines. Large wooden nkisi figures often have metal nails or shards imbedded in their bodies. The act of driving the metal into the figure seals a legal bond as part of the procedure to resolve disputes.

Stout's show was populated with figurative sculptures (often in the form of dolls) and votive objects that also carried pouches of herbs and unknown materials. To age these works, she rubbed them with dirt, paint, and an assortment of materials. For Stout, these were ritual objects offering protection and communication with the spirit world. Although the minkisi-related sculptures were riveting, her small objects and intimate notes were even more intriguing.

Early in her career, Stout created stories about a fictional African explorer called Colonel Frank and the stay-at-home object of his affection, Dorothy. These narratives culminated in displays of letters and objects. The character of Colonel Frank is based in part on a historical figure from Stout's neighborhood, whose house she visited. Using his books and letters as source material, Stout wove stories around the objects that she created for her imagined character to collect and classify. Frank gives these ceremonial objects, gathered during his travels to distant lands, as gifts to his beloved. Among them is a conjuring table. Dorothy is a seamstress, and she has a table laden with objects and potions designed to keep her man at home. Stout's narrative reveals the explorer's attempts to woo his lover with trinkets from other cultures and Dorothy's attempts to channel their ritual potential. Stout herself floats in and around their tale as both narrator and participant. Over the years, matters of the heart have been recurring themes in her work. Is it because people tend to seek psychic advice in regard to love, or do these works mark an attempt by Stout to chronicle aspects of her own romantic encounters? …

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