Reneé Stout was born in Junction City, Kansas, and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she was ten years old, Stout attended Saturday art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where she encountered an object in the museum collection that, combined with her fascination with a mysterious spiritualist who had a consultation space in her neighborhood, had a profound effect upon the nature of her mature artwork. The object was an African nail figure by the Bakongo (or Kongo) people of Central Africa called a nkisi nkondi. The spiritualist was Madam Ching, and though Stout never actually talked with her, the mystery of Madam Ching ignited Stout's imagination and became a trope for spirit workers and mediators of transformation in Stout's work.
Stout received her B.F.A. degree from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1980. In 1984 she received a residency in the Afro-American Master Artist Program at Northeastern University in Boston, and six months later she moved to Washington, D.C., where she began creating her mature work.
Stout's early work was photorealistic painting, but the work that first garnered national attention for her in art circles was sculpture informed by the nkisi (pl. minkisi ) she saw at the Carnegie Museum and the ideas associated with Kongo objects. Minkisi, whether figurative or not, are sacred Kongo objects that are believed to make things happen, and Stout adapted this notion to the creation of art objects that seemed to be ritual works. Most of Stout's works suggest an intervention in one's love life, while some work for protection. In one of her most notable works, Fetish No. 2 (1988, collection of the Dallas Museum of Art), Stout created a life-size self-portrait as an nkisi nkondi ritual object. This work was firmly placed on the national stage when it was shown at the exhibition Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African American Art, which originated at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1989 and traveled the country for several years. She gained further attention from the 1993 exhibition Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout, at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., a two-part show pairing her work with a number of minkisi power objects from Kongo.
In the 1990s Stout began creating work that reflected influences from the Yoruba culture of West Africa, and she showed an increasing interest in the American cultural forms and spiritual practices of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta region. An installation titled Dear Robert, I'll See You at the Crossroads (1995) was inspired by the life of bluesman Robert Johnson, who, according to legend, encountered the devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for the ability to play the blues better than anyone else. This legend emerges from folklore that transformed the Yoruba trickster deity Eshu Elegba into Papa Legba in the New World. Both are encountered at "the crossroads" because they carry messages and prayers from the human side to the spiritual side.
Reneé Stout's work is in museums and collections all over the United States, and she has received important commissions, including Houses of Spirit/Memories of Ancestors, an installation at the Woodlawn Cemetery (an African slave burial site) in the Bronx in New York. She continues to live and work in Washington, D.C.
Berns, Marla C. Dear Robert, I'll See You at the Crossroads: A Project by Reneé Stout. Santa Barbara, Calif.: University Art Museum, University of California, 1995.
McGaffey, Wyatt, and Michael D. Harris. Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renee Stout. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Riggs, Thomas, ed. The St. James Guide to Black Artists. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1997.
michael d. harris (2005)