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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Re-Presentations of the Black Subject

Appropriating African Belief Systems: Renée Stout Re-Writes Her Self

Alix Pierre


The Spelman College Museum of Fine Art—the only one in the nation dedicated to visual art made by and about women of the African Diaspora—is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Material Girls. The show features the work of seven female artists who use ordinary material such as black plastic combs, plastic grocery bags, and car tires, rebar, and metal bed frames to create art. Of particular interest is Renée Stout whose art is greatly informed by African belief systems. The artist raises the question of the complexity of (spiritual) identity formation for Americans of African descent who live in a Judeo-Christian society. What (spiritual) message is reflected back to African Americans in the faces of the majority population? What do they learn from the media about their (spiritual) selves? How are they (spiritually) represented in the cultural images around them? Or are they missing from the picture altogether? Stout acknowledges that much of her work deals with botanicas and herbal remedies: ‘I like to deal with these women who have strong personalities and create tableaux to them’. The paper examines her use of a healer alter ego—Fatima Mayfield—in the writing of what she considers to be ‘the last missing piece’ in the narrative of the African Diaspora. The analysis of the installation piece ‘The Thinking Room’, Fatima’s parlor, reveals how through the weaving of numerology, New Orleans Vodou, Nigerian Ifá and Congo Munkisi Stout’s aesthetic proceeds to (re) claim African-based spirituality.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists was presented at the Spelman College Museum of Fin (...)

1In the fall of 2012, the Spelman Museum of Fine Art—the only museum in the nation that emphasizes art by and about women of the African Diaspora—held an exhibition entitled Material Girls-Contemporary Black Women Artists.1

2The webpage of the institution introduced the event as follows:

  • 2

The seven artists featured in Material Girls-Contemporary Black Women Artists create three-dimensional works that exemplify the value of organic and man-made materials. Incorporating a range of materials including hair, beads, tissue paper, volcanic stone, rubber tires, and plastic, the artists are keenly attentive to the pleasure derived from the sense of touch. Using delicate and resilient materials, the artists have constructed monumental sculptures, shaped richly textured surfaces, applied intricate handwork, and created provocative assemblages.2

  • 3 Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY.

3In the foreword to the show catalogue Lowery Stokes Sims3 asserts:

The transformation of everyday, mundane materials is so prevalent in the work of African creators globally, that it could be identified as an ethnically determined aesthetic. After all, it was the African artist Fodé Camara who once noted that the essence of African-ness in contemporary creative production is grounded in ‘amalgamation and recycling’.
(Wilkinson 2011: 8)

4Of particular interest to us is the transformative process in the work of Renée Stout, and specifically her installation piece called The Thinking Room. The oeuvre resonates strongly with the viewer because, to quote Michelle Joan Wilkinson, it presents Stout as ‘a fearless agent of artistic experimentation’ (Wilkinson 2011: 11).

5The review by Access Atlanta, the cultural supplement to the daily newspaper The Atlanta Journal Constitution, of Renée Stout’s installation reads:

In the wacky and wonderful ‘The Thinking Room’, Stout has filled a small room with furniture, painting and decorative objects meant to evoke a fortune teller’s lair. Walking into this nook tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of the gallery, you feel as if you are truly entering the artist’s imagination.
(Feaster 2012)

Figure 1 – The Thinking Room

Figure 2 – The Thinking Room

6For its part, the magazine Arts Atlanta commented:

Stout makes a strong showing with ‘The Thinking Room’, the parlor of her imagined alter ego, herbalist, and fortune-teller Fatima Mayfield. The hot red interior features walls, shelves, and cabinets lined with bottles of potions, religious icons and symbols, African masks and painted portraits. A ledger listing clients, their ailments and remedies sits on an ottoman in front of a fancy settee. The space crackles with magic and mischief.
(Cash 2012)

7The above analyses express the impossibility for mainstream publications to properly read, understand, and explain art made by creators of African descent. The choice of words is evocative of the McDonaldization of otherness and the persistence of caricatural notions and visualizations of blackness that echoes a certain ‘orientalization’ of black art. In an art world dominated by the Eurocentric canon where a Mark Rothko tableau fetched $71.5 million in November 2012, a Jackson Pollock drip painting sold for $40.4 million, a Francis Bacon was had for $27.9 million and a recent sale of Impressionist and Modern Art reached $230 million this past May at Sotheby’s, what is one to make of a contemporary female African American artist’s installation piece dedicated to her alter ego? To top it all, one is told that the ‘double’, ‘second self’, or ‘twin’ is an herbalist who cures her people’s ailments. To quote art critique Olu Oguibe on the appraisal of Stout’s work:

In many respects [it] defines the limitations of appreciation and expectation, or what we might call the confines of perception, within which African (American) artists are either constructed or called upon to construct themselves. It speaks to a discourse of power and confinement in current Western appreciation of modern African art, a discourse of speech and utterative regulation, which by denying African artists the right to language and self-articulation, incarcerates them in the policed colonies of Western desire.
(Oguibe 2004: 12–13)

8This desire is made manifest by the Hollywoodian voodooization of black cultural practices noticeable in the journalistic lexicon in the two reviews discussed above: ‘wacky’, ‘crackles’, ‘magic’, and ‘mischief’. In response to the Access Atlanta review which concluded that the ‘show can often feel overburdened by its concept’, the director of the Spelman museum Andrea Barnwell Brownlee felt the need to explain the curatorial position chosen for the show. She wrote that the exhibition was informed by the fact that:

  • 4 In 1996 to commemorate the opening of the museum the college published Bearing witness: contemporar (...)

many black women who had little or no access to conventional art making material created extraordinary works of art. While women of various backgrounds have historically been creative, this project is primarily informed by the artistic traditions of black women that have historically gone un-noticed or undocumented.4
(Feaster 2002: 3)

  • 5 Ounfo: a voodoo temple ran by an ougan (priest) or mambo (priestess); terreiro: in the Candomblé fa (...)

9Stout then makes her presence doubly known by creating under the guise of Fatima Mayfield, a storefront healer. The installation is not just the portrait of a black woman. It conveys more than that. In fact, we are privy to the inner working of the healer’s psychology. Stout allows us into Fatima’s inner sanctum, her ounfo, terreiro, or casa templo.5 I argue that The Thinking Room can be viewed not just as a discourse on but the performance of religion, Diaspora, and cultural identity. The artist adopts rituals and practices of African religion to maintain a connection with the continent. Regarding this process Tracey E. Hucks states,

The complex pronouncement of Yoruba Americans, however, is this: while positioned in North America, they embody a ‘self-identification as ritually reborn Yoruba’ as Stephan Palmié asserts, yet they also invoke what Fran Markowitz calls an ‘anterior authenticity’ in order to ‘confront and transcend diasporic displacement’. As a component of this anterior authenticity, they posit an undeniable and historically factual ancestored authority that enables them to reclaim religions and cultures of Africa, recover and re-own Africa as a ‘continental entity’ of primordial origin, and use Africa in religious and cultural strategies of rehumanizing and rehistoricizing their despised identities as located within ‘the most brutal [...] and prolonged of human dispersals or diasporas’. More importantly, because of complex notions of ‘racially emancipatory-diasporic connaissance’, they do not consider themselves converts but instead reverts to traditional African ancestored epistemologies. Thus, Yoruba religion becomes a complex vehicle that ‘historicizes the African-American within the traditional African context’. Yoruba functions as a spiritually pragmatic gateway for ethnicizing ancestral connections broadly understood as African. Its African American expressions reflect the ways the ‘Africas’ produced in the diaspora and the religious traditions they have inspired have been important responses to what James Baldwin calls a wider ‘terrified dialogue’ within the imperializing presence of white supremacy and its subsequent alienation of blackness.
(Hucks 2012: xxvi-xxvii)

10A study of Stout’s statement of purpose and some specific elements of the installation will show how insightful Hucks’ pronouncement is and brings to bear on the reading of the work. Wilkinson picks up on the spiritualization of Africa at work in the oeuvres of the eight artists exhibited at Spelman in 2012. She insightfully remarks:

Though most of the art selected for Material Girls is not wearable or functional in any strictly utilitarian sense, a number of works on view reference spiritual traditions in which objects have ritual functions. Rituals of healing are undercurrents in works by Scott, Stout, and Jackson Jarvis.
(Wilkinson 2011: 14)

11And if Stout states clearly the references to the African belief system such as in another installation entitled Ogun, the visitors have to bring to the show their own knowledge of African religion and systems of therapy to fully comprehend how powerful a statement on Diasporic African identity The Thinking Room is.

12The visual artist explains that she started resorting to a doppelganger when she was in her 30s and that the persona came about out of a need to understand herself better, and her relationship to those around her. She confesses:

Through the alter ego I was able to project a personality that would have the attributes that I wanted it to have and were probably ones that I wished I had. It gave me the freedom to set up and act out scenarios in a way that was more objective and, by creating art and stories through and about this alter ego, I began to learn much about myself.
(Augustine 2008: 3)

13The artist states that she used the alter ego to help heal past hurts and guide her in choices that she needed to make in her personal life,

My way was to take that strong, wise inner voice and give her a name: Fatima Mayfield. Renée may second-guess herself sometimes, but Fatima Mayfield doesn’t. She stays in my ear saying, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that’, and I trust that she knows because she comes from that deep part of me that’s more connected to the universe. She’s from the more spiritual and intuitive place that dealing with a society such as this can take you out of, if you let it. Fatima keeps me grounded.
(Augustine 2008: 3)

14So ‘conjuring up’ Fatima is a self-empowering process for Stout. Through the persona, she reassembles the shattered and fractured black self made vulnerable by the majority white Anglo-Saxon protestant North American milieu which is the mirror in which African-descended Americans see themselves. To recapture the whole self, Stout draws inspiration from African-derived belief systems. She says:

As an African-American child who was raised in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, the only religion I was exposed to was Christianity. I knew that Africans who were part of my ancestry were brought to the Western Hemisphere as slaves, but their religious beliefs were not talked about. My interest in African art brought me to the discovery of these belief systems. I was inspired because in trying to figure out who you are as a human being, you always need to go back to the source. Studying these African belief systems allowed me to understand that there was another way, besides Christianity, of trying to understand and make sense of the universe and our existence. There is a general fear to incorporate African-based spiritual belief systems in the study of Diasporan African American history even on the part of African descended individuals mainly because they find themselves in societies dominated by the Judeo-Christian faith which is averse to other belief systems [...] It’s really hard for people of African descent to have great self-esteem when you are constantly being sent the message that your origins had little to contribute to the celebration and acknowledgement of a higher power and the development of human history in general.
(Augustine 2008: 5–6)

  • 6 Williams Wells Brown, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Edward Wilmot Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Loren (...)

15Oguibe, for his part, speaks of ‘the arrogance of Western culture and language that turns history into a colony whose borders validations, structures, and configurations, even life tenure, are solely and entirely decided by the West’ (Oguibe 2004: 3). It is constructed as a validating privilege that is the West’s to grant. One must bear in mind here that ‘African Diaspora’ as a concept and field of study was precisely a response on the part of African-descended scholars6 to the pronouncement made by Georg Hegel during his lectures in the 1830s, where he declared that Africa did not contribute anything to world history.

16The challenge for Stout’s, as it was for the German philosopher’s opponents, stems from the fact that she is inviting viewers to ‘consider alternative ways of seeing the world and this isn’t easy to do because we are locked into a specific set of rules about how we should see our world’ (Augustine 2008: 6). Ruth Hubbard brilliantly explains how scientific fact making is left to a group of selected few, academics that are, for the most part, white males and come from the upper echelon of society from an economic standpoint. Chosen and validated by their peers, they make decisions that impact the lives of the masses with no system of checks and balance in place. The author states that, contrary to scientists’ denial, such an endeavor is never unbiased but highly political and ideological (Hubbard 1988: 8). This leads to historical distortion where, as Merle Collins puts it in her poem ‘Crik Crak’, it is impossible to say, ‘What is the mirage and what reality? Do we know what is truth and what is truly fiction?’ (Collins 1992: 1)

17We would like now to sketch out the contour of the Diasporic worldview offered by Renée/Fatima. We contend that the ‘construction’ of Fatima as an identity is informed by what Robert Farris Thompson calls ‘the flash of the spirit’, those streams of creativity which he says have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New (1984: xiii). In other words the constitutive elements of the religious practices found in the Americas came with the African slaves, which they adapted to their new environment. As a contemporary African American member of the Diaspora re-discovering this vast and rich cultural heritage, Renée Stout, in turn, adds an additional layer of syncretism. She metaphorically experiences the Middle Passage in reverse, setting sail from the US. Starting with New Orleans Voodoo, the artist expands her reach within the black world both geographically and spiritually, including Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santeria, Haitian Voodoo, Anglophone Caribbean Obeah, Kongo, Yoruba, and other continental African healing customs.

18Stout’s previously stated account addresses the complexity of identity formation and the ordeal an individual goes through in the process. The psychologist Erik Erikson explains identity crisis as the procedure whereby one’s social, cultural, and historical context greatly impacts one’s identity. He states:

In psychological terms, identity formation employs a process of simultaneous reflection and observation, a process taking place at all levels of mental functioning, by which the individual judges himself in light of what he perceives to be the way in which others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to them.
(Erikson 1968: 2)

  • 7 We refer here to both the phrase in the Akan language of Ghana which means to ’return (san); to go (...)
  • 8 In Voodoo the term describes the possessed servant mounted by the deity.

19In ‘birthing’ Fatima Stout undergoes a Sankofa experience where she goes back (to the source as she puts it) ’and retrieve[s] with her eyes t o the future’.7 In order to deal with interpersonal relationships the artist-citizen resorts to African-based religious/spiritual healing practices. She stages a séance out of which Fatima was born. In doing so Stout subscribes to an African cosmogony and cosmology where the present, the past, and the future are interconnected. In such a worldview, in order to solve interpersonal problems, individuals call on their ancestors and deities. Communication is mediated through rituals and the medium of choice is possession. During such instances, Stout the horse8 is mounted by a divinity who is personified by Fatima and speaks through her: ‘do this’; ‘do that’. African pharmaceuticals are used in conflict resolution. As a treatment for a non-biomedical ailment. Fatima is called upon as an alternative mode of healthcare.

20In our analysis, we will lift some elements of the Kongo and Angola-influenced herbalism and mental healing practices evidenced in The Thinking Room, namely the Islamic healing stream, cosmograms, ritual drawings and charms, and flags.

Figure 3 – Come to see Fatima

  • 9 It means five in Arabic and symbolizes the five sacred rules of belief.

21In Arabic Fatima (h) means ‘she who weans’. She was the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and the wife of the 4th caliph Hazrat Ali. She was the master of the healers and treated the prophet when he was wounded in war. It is still believed that it is possible to cure incurable diseases with the help of Fatima’s hand and the prayer from the heart. For centuries Fatima’s hand or Hamsa9 has been a powerful talisman for good luck and one of the most popular amulets in the Islamic world.

22Stout layers Fatima’s presence in her work. Firstly, Fatima is part of a renaming or reclaiming of one’s identity. In changing Renée into Fatima (in French “renée” reads as “born again” or “reborn”), the African American artist makes an ideological statement and takes a nationalistic stand. She contests the hegemonic Eurocentrism of the North American society inscribed in its semantics. Stout seems to suggest that Fatima is a more likely African name than the master-given patronym Renée. The compounding of an African first name and European last name—Fatima Mayfield—renders better the African descendence of a part of the American population, rather than erasing it into oblivion.

23Secondly, through the name, Stout disputes the prevalent religious discourse that holds that the Judeo-Christian faith is the only spiritual foundation on which the nation was founded. Through Fatima, viewers are reminded that the slaves who landed on the American shore brought African belief systems with them. But they did more than simply carry their faith; they transformed Christianity and infused it with African elements. Michael Gomez explains:

While those of African descent were fighting to recreate themselves as free workers, they were also developing religious traditions that can be placed into three streams. The first extended a process that began with the African’s initial contact with European Christianity, whereby the religion was steadily Africanized both liturgically as well as theologically. The second stream, also continuing from previous periods, involved practices developed in Africa and transferred to the Americas, where they were renewed with some alteration but remained identifiably African. The third stream saw the creation of new religions, typically taken from the fabric of Islamic-Judeo-Christian traditions and woven into entirely new patterns, informed by a vision of Africa as a historical power and, at least in one instance, a future destination.
(Gomez 2005: 170)

24One such transplanted sacred practice was Islam. It is signified in Stout’s writing not only through the fortune-teller’s name but also through her very practice.

25Stout refers to Fatima’s healing power through the reproduction of her carved hand sitting on the record book. The close proximity of the carving with the pen, the reading glasses, and the cup and saucer suggests the erudition of the healer. In reference to the literacy of the slaves which was independent of American formal education or the masters’ good will Gomez states:

Many slaves, perhaps thousands, entered North America already literate, some having learned Portuguese or Spanish or French, and others Arabic. Recent research has shown that the number of Muslims entering North America from West Africa was much higher than formerly believed. Individuals such as Umar b. Said, who wound up in North Carolina, and Bilali, who lived on the Georgia sea island of Sapelo during the nineteenth century, were just two of a number of individuals who left written documents and represent the many literate in Arabic.
(Gomez 2005: 103)

Figure 4 – Fatima’s ledger

  • 10 All the terms refer to the same African-derived practice and (female) practitioner which take diffe (...)

26Syncretically, Fatima doubles as a mambo, santera, conjuror, root-person, mae de santo and iyalorisha.10 Through the created persona Stout is able to additionally level some criticism against the intersectional discriminatory nature of Christianity. In the West, both from a theological and liturgical standpoint, functions are gender-specific and male leadership tends to be the norm. By ushering in Fatima, Stout shows how women, and specifically non-white females, play a much greater role in non-Western religions that, very often, developed countries perceived as ultra conservative not to say retrograde.

27In Stout’s scenario Fatima is not the assistant to a master healer nor is she a patient seeking help; she is the central figure dispensing treatment. Healing provides agency. It signifies the control of power as the persona provides remedy, not only to the body (and mind), but to the entire community. The relationship in a segment of the African American community, Stout and her acquaintances, is off balance, which is disastrous both for the individual and the group in an African perspective. Stout ‘conjures up’ Fatima as an ointment to mend those broken bonds. Fatima displays signs of double-mindedness—a trait common to individuals endowed with healing powers. According to Samuel N. Murrell she ‘has the ability to see the spiritual world operating in the physical’ (Murrell 2009: 71).

28The manifestation of Kongo art and religion in the Americas also comes across in Stout’s work through cosmograms. These drawings, which are marked on the ground for purposes of initiation and mediation of spiritual powers between worlds, are centrally incorporated in Fatima’s storefront sign.

  • 11 Haitian Creole spelling of the word for deities.

29The vèvè makes for a strong statement and positions Fatima as a point of intrication or conduit between the world of the living, that of the dead, and the deities. Stout’s vèvè honors Papa Legba, the gatekeeper to the spirit world. Traditionally, Voodoo ceremonies begin with a prayer to Legba to open the gate so that participants can gain access to the other lwas.11 Legba is strongly associated with the sun and is seen as a life giver. Leslie Desmangles indeed states:

  • 12 For more on the subject see Ramsey, Metraux, Rigaud, Deren, and Bellegarde-Smith’s works.

According to Vodou mythology, one of Bondye’s (God) first creation when he fashioned the world, was the sun. Without its existence, the lwas, human beings, and all the multiplicity of things could not exist. All derive from this primordial light. Among the Fon, this light, which is the fire of life, is identified with the creative power of Legba, a characterization that explains why in Haiti fires are often lit for Legba during Vodou ceremonies.12
(Desmangles 1992: 108)

30The vèvè is a variation of the Kongo cosmogram that Farris Thompson elaborates on. The horizontal line divides the mountain of the living world from the mirrored counterpart in the kingdom of the dead. The mountain of the living is described as ‘earth’ (Farris Thompson 1984: 109). The mountain of the dead is called ‘white clay’ (Farris Thompson 1984: 109). The bottom half of the cosmogram refers to the world of the dead as complete within itself and to the wholeness that comes to a person who understands the ways and powers of both worlds. God is imagined at the top, the dead at the bottom, and water in between (Farris Thompson 1984: 109). Still according to Farris Thompson, the four disks at the points of the cross stand for the four moments of the sun, and the circumference of the cross the certainty of reincarnation. The summit of the pattern symbolizes, not only noon, but also maleness, north, and the peak of a person’s strength on earth. The bottom equals midnight, femaleness, south, the highest point of a person’s otherworldly strength (Farris Thompson 1984: 110).

31Similarly, Fatima/Stout positions herself as a bridge between realms. She travels the time conduit and moves easily between the world above, the underworld, and the terrestrial axis. In addition, through her methods of treatment, as a black American clinician, she offers her clients a clinical journey to Africa’s pharmacopeia signaled by the list of spiritual advices and supplies available (perfumes, candles, soaps, roots, incense, talismans, herbal teas, liniments, cologne, readings, beauty items, and mojo bags).

32The cosmogram also appears in the installation in the form of the nkisi-charm, a strategic object said to effect healing and other phenomena. Farris Thompson quotes Nsemi Isaki who defines nkisi as:

The name of the things we use to help a person when that person is sick and from which we obtain health; the name refers to leaves and medicines combined together [...] It is also called nkisi because there is one to protect the human soul and guard it against illness for whoever is sick and whishes to be healed. Thus an nkisi is also something which hunts down illness and chases it away from the body. An nkisi is a chosen companion, in whom all people find confidence. It is a hiding place for people’s souls, to keep and compose in order to preserve life.
(Farris Thompson 1984: 117)

33In Stout’s installation, the minkisi (plural form of ‘nkisi’) containers appear in the form of bundles, ceramic vessels, cloth bundles, wooden images, and statuettes.

34According to Farris Thompson, each nkisi contains medicines called bilongo and a soul (mooyo). Together they give life and power to the preparation. As a whole the medications are ‘spirit-embodying and spirit-directing’ (Farris Thompson 1984: 117). Therefore, the materials used by the artist are significant because they embody the spirit: earth, or its equivalent white clay, and red camwood signal transition and mediation to the next world; mirrors, beads, and pieces of porcelain signify power; the feathers are reminiscent of feathered headdresses worn by important chiefs and priests in Kongo. The choice of silk instead of traditional cotton and silk ribbons instead of raffia for the charms identify them with the Haitian paquet-kongo tradition. Fatima offers here her interpretation of Simbi Makaya (Simbi-of-the leaves), the tall one and Reine Kongo (Queen-of-Congo), with the arm akimbo. Of those preparations Farris Thompson says, ‘Haitian paquets are therefore sometimes interpreted cosmo-grammatically. They are “points”, mediating protective grace between the living and the dead’ (Farris Thompson 1984: 127). One other agent of intrication is visible in Fatima’s thinking room: voodoo flags.

  • 13 Simen grenn or scattering seeds.

35If in the Kongo worldview, the crossroad represents a point of intersection between the ancestors and the living, the coming of the gods is signaled by the appearance of vodun flags. Farris Thompson sees them as a variation of the Kongo theme, nikusa minpa, the ritual agitation or unfurling or ‘dancing’ of squares of cloth to open the door to the other world (Farris Thompson 1984: 185). Stout incorporates four flags to her discourse on Diasporan African religion. True to tradition, her designs comprise the vèvè for a particular spirit, the geometric borders and the designated colors. Pieces of satin, sequin, and beads are sewn together according to strict rules and techniques established by highly regarded flag makers in Voodoo circles.13

  • 14 The voodoo priest.
  • 15 When the laplas (ritual assistant) arrives/to unfurl my flag/I am going to see where my oungan is.

36Interestingly enough the larger one is a representation of the parting-of-the-flags ceremony as if to re-emphasize the importance of the central act that takes place in the peristyle, namely the coming of the lwas that mount or possess their faithful. Ana Wexler uses the ritual song that accompanies the entry of the flags to establish a strong connection between the oungan14 and the banner, ‘An arivan laplas deploye drapo mwen/M prale wè kot oungan mwen ye’.15 She sees them both as points of entry for the spirits (Wexler 2000: 59). Stout echoes this sentiment in drawing three variations of the same cosmogram. In the larger flag, one can see a vertically erected cross and a smaller horizontally laid out version. The kongo geometric figure in the top flag complements them.

37The presence of the four flags, as well as the general disposition of the room containing the elements that comprise Fatima’s healing supplies, addresses the importance of direction and orientation. Wexler declares:

Ritual orientation in Vodou is performed by saluting or signaling the four cardinal points with all the offerings, flags, and other objects used in the ceremony. The four points or directions demarcate the limits of space and directionality within it; they are indicated by lines that intersect in the Vodou cross, which represents the point of contact between the physical world and the domain of the lwas [...] Directionality is not only a structural principle but one that activates contact between human and spiritual beings and also delineates the moral quality of that contact [...] Staying straight means honoring the directives of the lwa and the healing work for which their guidance is intended.
(Wexler 2000: 71)

  • 16 Symbolically refers to Africa.
  • 17 The vèvè of Damballah comprises two serpents while Bossou is represented by the sacred horned bull.

38Damballah the master creator of all life and the symbol of coolness as well as Bossou the guardian between this world and Ginen16 are called upon, as evidenced by the sketching of their vèvè.17 The proximity of paquets-kongos and libation bottles establishes further the link between the lwas and the curative process.

39The Thinking Room offers an insight into an African American female artist’s imagining as she grapples with non-biomedical disorder(s) and alternative-read African-based-healing practices in a narrow-minded North American environment. The result is not a ‘wacky’, primitive, sexualized Western projection of a fantasized Other/Africa but a multilayered portrait of the Diasporan self as it pertains to African healing arts. Through Fatima, the visual artist paints the portrait of a central character in the community, the healer. She is a multi-faceted persona, as Samuel N. Murrell attests:

Afro-Caribbean religions often combine the roles of healer, priest, medium, herbalist, and medicine woman who work with herbal and other recipes. Healer, Obeah woman, and Obeah man are often one and the same; some Obeah men are more adept at healing medicine than others who might be better at protective and punitive medicine. Clients seek the same practitioners for consultation to securing cures to ailments, solutions to social problems, justice for wrongs, or obtain charms and amulets so to ward off spells cast by an ‘evil eye’.
(Murrell 2009: 71)

40The use of herbalism and mental healing rituals puts Stout in conversation with and in the company of chief historical practitioners of African-based belief systems who played a key role in the resistance to slavery. Names such as Nanny Maroon, the Wicked Witch of Rose Hall, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Cécile Fatiman, to name a few, readily come to mind. In choosing Fatima, Renée Stout emphasizes the key part played by African women in the provision of health and the art of therapy. Murrell echoes this sentiment:

Women have always featured prominently in Obeah magic and herbal medicine and they used the system to their own economic and social advantage. Because of their skill in religious magic, knowledge of plant pharmacopeia and other medicines, and partly through their strong leadership roles in African religions, women are highly respected and feared in Afro-Caribbean religions. Historically, Caribbean women were more likely to turn to Obeah for social and economic support in the face of inequities, unemployment, underemployment, and the domestic abuse they experience.
(Murrell 2009: 71)

41Stout shows that interpersonal relationships are an integral part of the pathologies covered by the African pharmaceuticals. Hers is a supplemental example of the therapeutic reach of religion and the spiritual scope of healing in the Diaspora. She closes ranks with Voodoo flag and paquets-kongo makers as well as creators of other Diasporic medication. However, the surface and rather dismissive reading of the installation piece by mainstream publications epitomizes the complex position contemporary African American artists find themselves in at home.

42The reviews raise the question of re-presentation. The control of one’s image brings to bear on the interpretation of the work of art. How do African-descended, and for that matter other minorities, portray themselves in a non-black American majority environment? What history/herstory do they write? Do they conform to the ‘official’, that is to say, dominant, but at times, distorted historiographical discourse or do they remedy it? We contend that Andrea Barnwell Browlee’s response to the art critic, and the hosting of the exhibit by Spelman Museum of Art, which included Stout’s work, also address the central subject of art appraisal, particularly concerning ‘minority’ productions in the Western world. Whose point of view is being expressed? More importantly, from what (chronological, historical, and/or cultural) positions of enunciation are these opinions articulated? What analytical tools (Eurocentric/hegemonic, Afrocentric, Diasporic, transnational, transcultural, etc.) are used to profess a standpoint?

43Stout’s unabashed exploration of an overlooked aspect of African American history echoes Merle Collins’ thesis developed in her poem ‘Crik Crak’. As a counter discourse to Fact Making, the text reads,

until lions have their own historians,
they say,
tales of hunting will always
glorify the hunter

tales of hunting will always
glorify the hunter
until lioness is her own hiss
(Collins 1992: 1)


Works Cited

Augustine, M. Karen. ‘Eyes of understanding: Renée Stout creates vessels for the spirits’. Possession: All that is sacred in contemporary art. July 2008. Accessed 5 November 2012. www.possessionsessions. com/2008/07/eyes-of-understanding-renee-stouts-art.html.

Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick and Claudine Michel, eds. Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers. New York: Palgrave and McMillan, 2006.

Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick and Claudine Michel, eds. Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.

Cash, Stephanie. ‘Review: Tires, love letters, hair combs and more are stuff of art for Spelman’s seven “Material Girls”’. Arts Atlanta, 28 September 2012. Web. 5 November 2012. 09/review-material-girls/.

Collins, Merle. ‘Crick Crack’, in Rotten Pomerack. London: Virago, 1992.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.

Desmangles, Leslie. Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Erikson, H. E. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.

Farris Thompson, Robert. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.

Feaster, Felicia. ‘ “Material Girls” show strong works of art’. Access Atlanta. 13 September 2012. Accessed 5 November 2012. -strong-works-of-art/nR7FP/.

Gomez, Michael A. Reversing Sail: a History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Hubbard, Ruth. ‘Science, fact, and feminism’. Hypatia 3: 1 (1988): 5–17.

Hucks, Tracey E. Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

Metraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Murrell, Samuel N. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to their Historical, Cultural and Sacred Traditions. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2009.

Oguibe, Olu. ‘In “The Heart of Darkness”’, in The Culture Game, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004; 3–46.

Ramsey, Kate. The Spirits and the Law. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2011.

Rigaud, Milo. Secrets of Voodoo. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2001.

Robinson, Jontyle Theresa. Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works of Art by African American Female Artists. New York: Rizzolli, 1996.

Wexler, Anna. ‘I am going to see where my Oungan is: the artistry of a Haitian Vodou Flagmaker’, in Sacred Possessions: Vodu, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean, Margarite Fernandez and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, eds. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000; 59–78.

Wilkinson, Michelle Joan. ‘Of material importance’, in Material Girls: Contemporary Women Artists, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, ed. Baltimore: Reginal F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, 2011; 45.

Wilkinson, Michelle Joan, ed. Material Girls: Contemporary Women Artists. Baltimore: Reginal F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, 2011.


1 Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists was presented at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, September 6-December 1, 2012. This exhibition was developed and organized by the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture and curated by Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D. Major support was provided by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners under the guidance of Fulton County Arts & Culture. Images: Renée Stout, The Thinking Room, 2005, Mixed media installation. Courtesy the artist and Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC Photos by Julie Yarbrough Photography.


3 Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY.

4 In 1996 to commemorate the opening of the museum the college published Bearing witness: contemporary works by African American women artists, the catalogue to the travelling exhibit.

5 Ounfo: a voodoo temple ran by an ougan (priest) or mambo (priestess); terreiro: in the Candomblé faith, a religious house of spiritual healing; casa temple: an altar dedicated to a deity in the Santeria religion.

6 Williams Wells Brown, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Edward Wilmot Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, Lorenzo Dow Turner, Carter G. Woodson, and Cheik Anta Diop to name a few.

7 We refer here to both the phrase in the Akan language of Ghana which means to ’return (san); to go (ko); to look, seek and take (fa)’and the Asante Adinkra pictogram of a bird with its head turned backward while it is holding an egg in its beak. Both symbols represent the need for members of the Diaspora to reflect on the past to better ground themselves in the present and project themselves in the future. Metaphorically, to better anchor herself in the present and successfully negotiate the future, Stout returns to Africa through Fatima and the healing tradition that she represents.

8 In Voodoo the term describes the possessed servant mounted by the deity.

9 It means five in Arabic and symbolizes the five sacred rules of belief.

10 All the terms refer to the same African-derived practice and (female) practitioner which take different names depending on the Diasporic context. The first one alludes to the Haitian Voodoo world, the second to the Cuban Santeria, the third and the fourth to the African American background and the last two to the Brazilian Candomblé.

11 Haitian Creole spelling of the word for deities.

12 For more on the subject see Ramsey, Metraux, Rigaud, Deren, and Bellegarde-Smith’s works.

13 Simen grenn or scattering seeds.

14 The voodoo priest.

15 When the laplas (ritual assistant) arrives/to unfurl my flag/I am going to see where my oungan is.

16 Symbolically refers to Africa.

17 The vèvè of Damballah comprises two serpents while Bossou is represented by the sacred horned bull.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 – The Thinking Room
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Légende Figure 2 – The Thinking Room
Fichier image/jpeg, 47k
Légende Figure 3 – Come to see Fatima
Fichier image/jpeg, 38k
Légende Figure 4 – Fatima’s ledger
Fichier image/jpeg, 77k


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