Installation photo by Etienne Frossard
Renée Stout: At the Crossroads
September 25, 2016–March 19, 2017
Curated by Mary Birmingham
Looking back at Renée Stout’s powerful exhibition, At the Crossroads from 2016, I am struck by how essential her message remains. (View the exhibition brochure here.) I recently checked in with her to see how she is coping with life and art in the time of Covid-19, and to hear what she is currently thinking.
Planning the show during a polarizing presidential campaign, it really did seem like that’s where we were as a nation. Stout, a Washington, DC-based artist inspired by traditional African ritual objects, the cultures of the African Diaspora, contemporary events, and personal history, often employs crossroads imagery and lore in her multimedia work, and it was the unifying idea of her show at the VACNJ. Recognized as a place where power is transmitted and symbolized by a cross, in many religions the crossroads represents the intersection of the visible and invisible worlds, where one may contact spirits or witness supernatural events. In West African culture, people go to the crossroads to seek help and guidance from their ancestors.
Lay Your Hand on the Radio, 2009-2014 (collaboration with Odinga Tyehimba)
Mixed media construction: wood, paint, soil, found technological and electronic parts, 70 x 60 x 30 in. (overall)
In this exhibition, Stout introduced several ritual figures to provide guidance and protective energy—most notably Elegba, a Yoruba trickster deity who is a guardian of the crossroads. She also fashioned a number of communications devices that resembled vintage radios and other instruments for receiving and harnessing spiritual power and wisdom. She noted at the time, “The crossroads is a place of chance, choices, and decision making. Everyone has ancestors, and the way I see it, they’re all watching, waiting, and wondering if we’ll make the right choices to bring the world to a more enlightened place, so that everyone has the ability and conditions in which to grow and flourish.”
Elegba and the Pearl Gourd, 2015, mixed media on paper, 19 x 24 in.
Now, four years later, the significance of the crossroads as a metaphor has become even more relevant and powerful, as we come to terms with our legacy of racial injustice in the midst of a global pandemic. Working in isolation, Stout has continued to nurture her desire to heal and empower the human spirit. (She kept her own spirits up recently, with a quarantine roller-skating session in the studio with her cat, Rose.)
Drawing wisdom from the past, the artist recently posted a recommendation on her Instagram feed that I think is worth repeating. Referring to James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” she stated: “Required reading…for EVERYBODY. At just 106 pages it’s a fast, but powerful read. Baldwin wrote it in 1962 and it was so insightful and on point that you would think it was written yesterday. In light of what is currently going on, if you don’t read any other books on the topic of race in America, read this one.”
The Way We Heal, 2019, Mixed media on handmade paper, 9 ½ x 12 inches
Soul Catcher/Regenerator, 2014–2015, Found and manipulated wire and found objects, 96 x 50 x 22 inches
Escape Plan C (and the Music I’ll Need), 2018, Mixed media on Paper, 8 ½ x 11 inches