Renee Stout: Working with Spirit
By Shantay Robinson
Renee Stout is a narrative artist who uses a variety of media to tell an ongoing story of living life as an African American woman in a culture that has roadblocks set up to keep them from thriving. Though Stout has been a practicing artist for more than thirty years, she continues to work despite not receiving the acclaim of less seasoned and newly minted artists in the field. Stout is the winner of the 2010 David C. Driskell Prize, which is an honor and recognition from a person whom she greatly respects. When the High Museum called her about the prize, she was working as she normally does without knowing if the world was noticing her work. “So, I’m quietly doing my work,” she says. “It’s not like I’m showing in New York. I don’t have that visibility, so you wonder do people even know you exist sometimes. But that’s not going to stop me from working. I work not because someone’s looking. When you get a prize and somebody calls you up from the High Museum and tells you that you’ve won the prize, it lets you know that even when you don’t think somebody’s looking, somebody’s looking.”
Stout was initially introduced to African-based spirituality when she was a young girl attending Saturday morning art classes at Carnegie Museum. When she was escorted through the building to view artifacts in the African culture section of the museum, she encountered an African power figure that had nails driven into it. “I found it fascinating and it really stuck in my head,” she says. She didn’t know what it was and there wasn’t much text about it on the wall placard. She went on to study painting at Carnegie Mellon, and she never lost interest in African art. When she moved to Washington D.C. in 1985, she started to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and made the connection to the power figure at the Carnegie she encountered when she was young to the art at the Smithsonian. There, she found extensive information about the artworks, which piqued her interest. So, she started reading about African art, philosophy, and spirituality.
Her work focuses on African spirituality and is steeped in a Black aesthetic. “Anybody who looks at my work can see where it’s coming from in the subject matter” she says. “I’m doing what I do out of who I am and the experiences I have and that’s what’s reflected in the work.” She confesses her work is not easily marketable, so the art market is a challenge. She’s not a mainstream artist and likens the art market to American Idol where artists are now required to be the whole package with good looks and the right story. She believes the art market no longer encourages longevity and dedication to your craft. Because she’s self-driven, she doesn’t question her longevity. “I’m unapologetically dealing with the subjects that I’m dealing with like African spirituality. The art market doesn’t have a framework to understand. It’s because we live in a white dominated Christian society that doesn’t understand what I’m doing.”
She says, “I don’t have the representation I need because nobody really knows how to represent what I’m doing.” She’s not trying to replicate authentic hoodoo relics. Her sculptures, paintings, and drawings are informed by her studies in African-based spiritual systems that guide her creation of power objects – because hoodoo is what you make it. For example, her drawing Blood Bottle could be seen as a power object she created after witnessing a woman bleeding to death outside of her home. One day in her neighborhood, in the early morning, there was commotion outside. When she looked, there was a woman lying wounded in the gutter. Two Latino men communicated to her to call the police. After a day of a blocked off street and speaking to the police about what she knew, Stout created Blood Bottle.
Her work is not meant to be understood immediately. She likens herself to Toni Morrison whose work requires time to get to know. “When I approach my work, I approach it on multiple levels. First of all, I have something I want to say. Then my work is filled with a lot of symbolism and lots of metaphors.” She observes that people don’t want to work too hard to understand a painting. Interestingly, the ease of understanding an artwork might account for the success of portraiture when it comes to Black artists and the white art world. But in order to understand Stout, there needs to be some understanding of African-based spiritual practices. She says, “They want to get it right away. That’s not the way I am.”
Stout offers that she’s the kind of artist people will probably finally get or catch up to when she’s in her 90s or gone. While the white art market is looking for easily accessible artwork, Black women might catch on to Stout sooner than later. In a search on YouTube for “Black women spirituality,” many videos of Black women speaking about African spirituality and manifesting populate. It might not be long until a legion of Black women come to know African-based spiritual systems and form a true connection to Stout’s work.
“To me, what I envision is that one day every African American woke up and said okay I’m done with Christianity, I’m going to start believing in the beliefs of my ancestors. I’m going to revisit the belief systems and ways of looking at the universe and that kind of thing, I think the whole power balance would change.” Stout believes African-based spiritual practices can help Black people overstep the roadblocks the culture sets up. “We have to start seeing ourselves differently,” she offers. “One of the ways I believe we can do that is embracing our own spirituality – the spirituality of our ancestors because as long as in the back of our minds there is a white Jesus, I don’t know how far you can get with that.” She understands the controversial nature of her beliefs because, in the Black community, Hoodoo, Voodoo, Santeria, and the like are typically taboo. With a recent interest and acknowledgment of African-based spirituality by Black women, her goal of getting African American viewers to question their spirituality could be near.
“As a woman, as an African American, I totally rejected Christianity because I don’t believe it’s in line with the person who I am growing to be or the woman I want to be. I can’t deal with a belief system that subjugates women. I’m not going to deal with that.” With the reemergence of feminism, Stout’s inculcation of African-based spiritual systems as equitable to women could be a draw for many Black women to look closely at her art, but more importantly to look at a spiritual system that empowers them. She admits that in order for her to transcend boundaries and barriers, she has to be grounded in a belief system that allows her to wake up every day and say that she believes in herself. “Looking at Diasporic Religions that have their seeds in African belief systems are the thing that ground me. And that’s why I have to do it,” she says.
Although Stout’s story is not dissimilar to many working artists who are dedicated to the longevity of their art careers, her success has yet to reach its peak. With the proliferation of books on Amazon and videos on YouTube about African-based spirituality, Black women are discovering the power of their ancestors’ belief systems, systems that brought them through some of the most horrendous times in human history. Stout’s purpose for art, to communicate what is going on her mind, is likely to connect to viewers who will understand the gravity of her work sooner than later. “So, if you ask me why I make art. I don’t know. I do it because I have to,” she says. Her drive to make art, makes available a body of work that we can refer to when we come to terms with African-based spirituality and finally understand the power inherent in it.
Like most artists, Stout feels compelled to communicate what she’s created inside of her. “If you see something you want to share that vision that’s in your head. And so, you make art, you tell a story, you play a song. It comes from inside you. What I’m noticing is strangely a lot of younger artists seem to be driven by what’s outside of them more than what’s inside.” Stout creates art because it’s like eating or sleeping. She has to do it. She’s not interested in being famous or an art star. She does it whether no one is looking. She’s just compelled to make art. As soon as she realized she was committed to making art, she never looked back.
“That’s what I do. That’s my story,”
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SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, ArtsATL, Nashville Scene, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Sugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.
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