Conjure: to manipulate supernatural forces, using charms, roots and inanimate and handmade articles.
The artist, who won the High Museum’s David C. Driskell Prize in 2010, explores contemporary hoodoo (also known as hexing and spell-casting), an amalgam of African folkloric practices and the folk magic of the African Diaspora, by means of an alter-ego named Fatima Mayfield.
In a practice akin to that of Zora Neale Hurston — whose 1935 literary anthropology recorded conjure tales and traditional hoodoo practices in New Orleans by inserting herself into the narrative of those practices — Stout creates her own personal and artistic anthropology with the two alter-egos she adopted to provide a means to examine, cope with and even laugh at personal issues while informing her exploration of broader, historic sources of inspiration important to her work.
A powerful display of hoodoo materials sets the tone for the exhibition. A vitrine from The Charleston (S.C.) Museum encases a cigar box full of the real thing — powders, shells, rocks, animal parts and vials of “goofer dust,” or graveyard dirt, dated 1860–1890. Like all totemic materials, these seem still animated by the power once invested in them. (Renée Stout, Roots and Readings, 2013)
Madame Ching evolved 20 years ago, she has said, as “the projection of the woman I hoped to become.” Fatima Mayfield, whom Stout introduced in the early 2000s, dominates here. Stout created this urban conjure woman, healer, herbalist and fortune teller, she said, “to guide me in choices I needed to make in my personal life.”
Stout creates the world of this modern-day conjure woman through role-playing, storytelling, photography, drawing and painting as well as sculpture, installation and assemblage that use found and collected objects.
One such assemblage, The House of Chance and Mischief (ca. 2008–10), is our personal initiation to Stout’s version of hoodoo. Viewers are invited to record “a burning issue or wish” on a piece of paper for Fatima’s attention. The instructions read: “Write your desire and deposit it into The House of Chance and Mischief. One never knows . . .”
I visited the museum in the opening hours of the first day of the exhibition, and I was alone in the gallery. As directed, I dropped my own “burning issue” into the slot at the side of this fortune teller’s booth-sized box, six feet high and topped with a glass box full of hoodoo miscellany reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell. I listened as it fell and came to rest on the bottom. Now all I can do is wait. Stay tuned . . .
Other installations and assemblages, such as Black Wall With Bitches Brew from 2010, suggest the power of objects to invite us into the world of spirit as invoked by the practitioner of hoodoo. The Rootworker’s Worktable, ca. 2011, presents a tabletop crowded with potion-filled colorful glass bottles positioned beneath a blackboard covered in writings. It is eerily as if the conjure woman has just stepped away from her work.
Stout visually merges the symbols of the rootwork practices of African ancestors with the most potent symbol of the new religious culture to which they were transported.
Wooden crosses dangle exposed roots as if they were just uprooted from the ground in the tableau House of Ghede. They hang from the ceiling over a vignette suggesting an interior — chair, table, window. The shadows these crosses cast on the wall may be the best thing about that piece. Their metaphoric power makes them strong enough to stand alone.
The poetic Wishes, 2013, a blown-glass sculpture in the form of a jar filled with puffballs of dandelion seeds, was most stirring. A vision in white, full of magic and mystery, it struck me as the perfect, haunting metaphor for the diaspora itself: people, dispersed, like so much blown dandelion fluff.
The museum brochure tells us Stout takes inspiration from “the power of objects to transfer ancestral wisdom and healing.” She is most successful when she allows those objects, whether found or created, to speak directly to us as she does here in her sculpture installation and assemblage. Generally, that work is stronger than most of the drawing and painting.
An exception, however, is the compelling Marie Laveau, an archival pigment print ca. 2009–10, Stout’s version of the storied conjure woman, whom Hurston had written about. While Hurston described Leveau (as Hurston spelled it) as a light-skinned “Creole Quadroon,” Stout chose to portray her Laveau as a very dark-skinned woman whose unexpected bright green eyes pierce you and draw you into her world. The artist explained her use of skin color as a “metaphor for her origins” and a way to emphasize the African part of her (Laveau’s) heritage.”
I Can Heal, a six-minute film commissioned for the exhibition and produced by Mark Sloan, exhibition curator for Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, explores the relationship between Stout and Mayfield, her alter-ego. Voices in recitation of what sounds like incantation accompany Stout’s/Mayfield’s action in a kind of aural palimpsest of both.
The recitation makes use of the terms taken from the glossary at the museum’s entrance, the words of the “Parable of the Sower” from the Book of Matthew and the formula for the hoodoo spell “To Make People Love You” found in Hurston’s Mules and Men. For instance: “Take nine lumps of starch, nine of sugar” . . . and . . . then “Distance makes no difference. Your mind is talking to his mind and nothing beats that.”
In Tales of the Conjure Woman, Stout enlivens a rich tapestry of African folklore and magic. Her Fatima Mayfield reinvigorates a long artistic and literary tradition begun by Charles Chestnutt, who embodied the practice of African American hoodoo in the figure of the conjure woman in his 1899 book of stories The Conjure Woman. Chestnutt helped keep alive the thread that Zora Neale Hurston picked up 30 years later when she revived interest in African folklore and conjure tales with her writing and research. Authors Alice Walker and Robert Hemenway introduced Hurston to a new generation of readers in the decade after she died in a welfare home in 1960.
Fatima Mayfield owes a debt of gratitude to Chestnutt, Hurston,Walker and Stout for her creation. She owes a debt of gratitude to those men and women displaced by the African Diaspora who brought these traditions from Africa, made them their own and kept them alive in a new country under the worst imaginable conditions.
So do we all.
The exhibition was produced by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and co-organized with the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College.
Renée Stout will present a lecture, “The Artist’s Inspiration,” at the museum Sunday, February 16 at 3 p.m.
On home page: Renée Stout, Roots and Readings, 2013. Courtesy Accola Griefen Gallery, NY.
Click here to view more photos.