CLINTON, NY — There are multiple magics at work in the art of Renée Stout. As the subject of her current solo exhibition at the Wellin Museum, Stout has chosen hoodoo, or conjure, a set of African American spiritual practices often referred to as folk magic. She’s also created a worker of this magic, a conjurer named Fatima Mayfield who is Stout’s alter ego. And in her objects themselves, Stout has embedded the magic of art — a bewitching artifice — which is to say that her paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs are so carefully constructed and so authentically felt they conjure and sustain their own reality.
The exhibition, titled Tales of the Conjure Woman, is curated by Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, where it was first mounted in 2013. In the catalogue, Sloan defines hoodoo as:
an underground system of African-derived folk beliefs as transmitted from slavery to the present. The 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. … 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.
Stout, in other words, isn’t a documentarian, but the tradition that she’s tapping into is real. Hoodoo and conjuring, Sloan goes on to explain, 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.” And so, in Tales of the Conjure Woman, we see a handwritten list of ingredients needed for “the seduction of Sterling Rochambeau,” including “Adam & Eve roots,” ginger, and “black lace bra + panties.” We see various roots as stand-alone sculptures, others in dispensers or glass jars. (One glass vessel contains simply “wishes.”) We see signs advertising Fatima’s services: “I can see the truth in your eyes,” one reads, the words scrawled in thick red letters around a heavy-lidded, pink-lined eye (the warning at the bottom cautions, “I go straight to your soul”). We see a divination of cowrie shells that takes the form of a series of numbers, a single palm laid open among them as it awaits an explanation of its fate. We see objects and shrines made for Erzulie and Ghede, two families of spirits in Haitian Vodou (representing love and beauty, death and fertility, respectively).
For anyone who’s tempted to dismiss all this as some kind of “black magic” — and note the connotation of the word “black” in that phrase, whose counterpart is “white magic” — poet Kevin Young explains in his deeply felt catalogue essay the significance of such practices:
However we name it, conjure, rootwork, root doctoring, hoodoo, proves a kind of salve for invasive medicine that would less treat African Americans than mistreat them as less-than — put them onstage, as the nineteenth century often did, in the name of dime museums or medicine, alive or vivisected.
Stout offers a similarly political reading of her work in her own catalogue appearance, an interview in which she speaks as Fatima Mayfield:
During the Civil Rights movement, black Americans seemed to have openly embraced everything from their natural hair texture and skin color to African-style clothing, yet, to this day, while there are a few younger people who seem to be embracing the African-based systems like Yoruba, Palo, etc., African-derived spiritual belief systems and Hoodoo seem to remain a relative taboo. In other words, you can sport your dreadlocks and a dashiki, but you’d better not profess to be anything other than Christian. This kind of ‘sweeping under the rug’ or feeling of shame about the belief systems of our ancestors has always bothered me on many levels. Part of the reason why I make the kind of work that I make is that it’s my way of honoring the ancestors and asserting that, as an African American woman, I owe it to them and myself to keep that door open.
In this sense, Tales of the Conjure Woman is a reclamation, as well as a revelation for those audiences who either know nothing of hoodoo or may have dismissed it. As Stout mentions, conjure doesn’t position itself in opposition to Christianity, but Christians are often opposed to it — a situation she addresses by creating Reverend Beach, whose words of warning appear in one silkscreen print: “Rev. Beach said stay Away from Fatima & Hoodoo! Don’t Get no Readings.” The writing is scrawled on a rusting sign on a church wall as a pair of seductive feet in high heels dangles above — Fatima?
Nearby in the gallery stands Rev. Beach’s pulpit for a storefront church (the same church?) on Florida Avenue, a work made especially for the Wellin that highlights Stout’s incredible technical skill. The piece features a doily-draped altar flanked on either side by ferns. An open Bible rests on the altar, and just above it a sign cries “JUDGEMENT!” in red neon letters. Get closer, though, and you realize that the neon is an unbelievably faithful rendition in paint. (And then you might recall — or be unsurprised to learn — that Stout started out as a sign painter.) Meanwhile, the wooden panel holding the sign features pictures of holy men set again paint-streaked floral wallpaper. Is this an object that Stout found whole, a warped piece of wallpapered wood that she embellished — or did she create an entirely new object that looks convincingly old?
This question arises constantly throughout the show, and even when you know the answer in certain cases, the outcomes remain stunning. With its coin return knob, its curlicued promise of “Highest Quality!,” and its allover scrapes and stains, “The Root Dispenser” (2013) looks like it sat in the back of a healer’s shop for the better part of a century; it was constructed entirely by Stout. What appear to be two oversize, wrinkly roots are in fact glass sculptures covered with oil stick. The piece of blue painter’s tape that looks like a forgotten stray on “Nature’s Herbs (White Wall #3)” (2013) is a foolproof product of trompe l’oeil — as are the studs lining one side of the work, its cracking, peeling white paint, and the half-envelope thumbtacked at the top. After a while, trying to figure out what’s found and what’s made in each piece becomes a guessing game, which can be partly solved with the help of the wall text; for instance, the dazzling myriad glass bottles on “The Rootworker’s Table” (2011) that all look salvaged are actually a mix of hand-blown and recovered, while the chalkboard that hangs above them is really a painting.
What makes Tales of the Conjure Woman so stunning, then, is that Stout has created more than just an alter ego; she’s constructed the universe in which her second self exists. And so Fatima Mayfield is both real and not. The same paradox — call it a kind of magic — extends to Stout’s artworks: they revel in their illusionism but incorporate authentic elements, both literal and spiritual. Just as Fatima might cast a spell of seduction, Stout has conjured her own vision of the world.
Renée Stout: Tales of the Conjure Woman continues at the Wellin Museum (Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY) through December 20.