“Things I’ll Need for the Seduction”: An Interview with Sondheim Winner Renee Stout

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“The House of Chance & Mischief”

Seasoned artist Renee Stout, who won the $30,000 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize for 2012, is a multi-media maker who creates her art, at least in part, by consistently taking on a fierce fictional identity. Her alter-ego’s intriguing first name: Fatima.

When I visited Stout’s exhibition – currently on display at the BMA, along with the work of all spectacular Sondheim finalists, Lisa Dillin, Jon Duff, Hasan Elahi, Matthew Janson and John McNeil, until July 29th – I was most struck by those pieces in which the mind of this Fatima Mayfield, a gifted spiritual healer, seems most alive and participant. The staged photographs, starring Renee/Fatima in dreadlocks and platform heels, yes, also thought-provoking, but less so for me than the art-text-involved works that seem to stream from both women’s brains, creator and character.

When she accepted the prestigious award on July 14th, Stout could already claim to have hung work in The National Gallery, stationed sculpture at the Hirshhorn… A veteran visionary, Stout was born in Pittsburgh in 1958, and now calls D.C. home. She told Scott Dance of The Sun that she began to embody her main character almost 20 years ago as a way to overcome shyness “about making observations about culture and spirituality.”

I asked her what she couldn’t have accomplished as an artist without Fatima at her side.

“I feel that creating an alter-ego allows me to free myself from the constraints of my own persona,” Stout said. “Early on in life we kind of get caught up in becoming the person that our parents and society expect us to be, especially women. The Fatima character allows me to shed all of that and re-invent myself in order to make work that I feel is more true to who I actually am.”

courtesy of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“The Rootworker’s Worktable,” an installation (above/below), features enchanting chalkboard text that spells out a convincing spell, plus important assorted bottles atop an antique TV/bureau-type contraption. The piece catches the viewer first by phraseology, big words printed neatly by Renee…no, by Fatima, and aiming for plainspoken seduction, via Adam and Eve Roots and plenty more mischief.

Below, “Root Jars” use one medium: glass. But I could swear these jars contain floating organic life tugged from the earth — or maybe…human organs.

The graphite drawing below is part of a series, “Marked by Ogun,” showcasing sketches plus text, written by Fatima, with a good portion of Renee mixed in.

Stout keeps journals to get to the heart of her written art.

“I’m always chronicling things that go on in my life and, as they say, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction,” she said. “I use snippets from everyday life to build on in these mostly narrative works that deal with everything from romance and finance to spiritual, social and political issues.”

“I have Ogun energy inside and out,” reads one panel from the graphite series, emphasizing the valuable spiritual inheritance imparted from “two grandfather steel workers.” (Ogun is the spirit in Caribbean and South American culture that presides over metals, fire, politics, and war.) I find “Marked by Ogun” particularly captivating because it unwinds an entirely unpredictable narrative told by a woman who confesses to craving tattoos and pick-up trucks, a strong but feminine force who doesn’t shy from masculine confrontation. (Believe me, you’ll never guess how she got that shiner.)

“The House of Chance and Mischief,” featured at top, and in two images below, is built of wood, acrylic, glass, found objects, and mixed media. The entire involved piece seems to beckon us inside Fatima’s fable, and I’m more than willing to read on. Happily, Stout plans to pursue Fatima’s story much further over the next year.

“I’m already writing about the Fatima persona and the characters that move in and out of her world. I have several vignettes already written,” she said. “I had been thinking about a book, but more recently I realized that creating a film-short based on the character’s ‘adventures’ would be the next logical step in my work.”

[Below, “Master of the Universe” uses found and assembled objects: paint, rhinestones, glass beads, and organic materials.]

Named for the late Baltimore civic leader Walter Sondheim and his wife, Janet, the Sondheim Prize recognizes the achievements of visual artists living or working in Maryland, but also in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Go offline NOW and take in the free exhibition!

 



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3 COMMENTS

  1. Ogun traveled with captive Africans to the western hemisphere. He is a primordial deity in the Yoruba (Nigeria/Benin) cosmology. Origin is not the Caribbean, nor South America.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Koko — right you are, though Ogun’s influence is wide… Fatima (and Renee’s) related Ogun journal entry refers specifically to Caribbean and South American ritual — Fatima the healer has important ties to New Orleans. Here’s what Renee Stout herself has to say on the matter: “Ogun has Nigerian origins. However, wherever West Africans were taken in the Western Hemisphere you’ll find the honoring of the deity Ogun, including the Caribbean (Haiti) and South America (Brazil/Bahia).”

  3. Congratulations Renee! We are super proud of you, and when I say, “we”, I mean your JHU family, as the inaugural JHU Center for Africana Studies Artist in Residence, you set the bar for all the artists that followed, including: contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas, Mezzo Soprano Stephanie McGuire and Larry Williams and the American Studio Orchestra (who by the way are also performing at Artscape). Amazing artists for an amazing program, but you my sister and dear friend were the first, the original article…we could not be more proud. Congratulations again, well deserved. Well deserved indeed.

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