Washington artist Renee Stout contains multitudes. She makes paintings, sculptures, photographs and mixed-media pieces and roams the mystical terrain where African gods meld with Christian saints. Sometimes she even becomes a different person altogether — “hoodoo” woman Fatima Mayfield, who deals in potions and predictions.
That makes for a full house in “Renee Stout: Tales of the Conjure Woman,” at the American University Museum. Yet the various Stouts are not the whole crowd. They’re joined by “Circle of Friends,” an adjacent show of work by the artist’s female cohorts from the region. And there’s a wider array upstairs in “Impact! The Legacy of the Women’s Caucus for Art.” (The museum’s top floor features another local female artist, painter Maggie Michael, but that’s a tale for another day.)
Stout’s work hasn’t been neglected in her home town — it was shown at Hemphill Fine Arts and Greater Reston Arts Center in 2015. But “Tales of the Conjure Woman” takes a longer view. The show, organized by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and the Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, isn’t a career retrospective, but it does include some earlier work.
Many of Stout’s recent assemblages include antediluvian radios and televisions, tuned not to “The Green Hornet” or “I Love Lucy,” but to the spirit world. There’s one such piece here, incorporated into a table and topped with vessels and vials. Such containers are everywhere, whether as the subject of paintings or in actuality. There’s even a display of perfume bottles that you can uncork and sniff.
The scents of musk and flowers may dominate, but just as symbolically important is the aroma of earth — from graveyards and, ultimately, Africa. Roots and herbs, comically offered in a vending machine, testify to the magic that enslaved Africans carried with them to the American South. But the spells were reformulated there. Stout’s talismans include crosses and a Bible open to the Book of Isaiah, ancient prophet of a peaceful future that’s yet to arrive.
Although Stout’s African heritage is central to her artistic vision, “Tales of the Conjure Woman” also invokes the power of women’s traditional roles: maker, healer, counselor, seductress. “I can help prevent unwanted situations,” promises the text in one collage, and a blackboard lists the necessary materials to enchant Sterling Rochambeau, no doubt a worthy gentleman.
The artist isn’t suggesting that these are the only possibilities for women. A hoodoo girl, surely, can grow up to be an astronaut or president of the United States. It’s just that Stout is more interested in how women employed their mojo back when their professional opportunities were considerably more limited.
Artistically, at least, the possibilities are broader these days, as “Circle of Friends” demonstrates. This eclectic show features 16 women who have influenced Stout or have been influenced by her since she arrived in town 30 years ago.
The affinity is more in spirit than style. Stout’s crowded pieces are quite unlike Jae Ko’s minimalist but massive sculpture, made of only rolled paper and black ink. And several of these artists are rooted in Asia or the Middle East, not Africa. For example, Persian calligraphy is one of the inspirations for Hadieh Shafie’s epic wall painting.
Somewhat closer to Stout’s approach are Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s near-life-size paper dolls, outfitted with roses, fabric, butterflies and money. (The latter is an ingredient in all sorts of voodoo.) The assortment also includes two small sculptures by Joyce Scott, whose beadwork invokes African motifs.
Scott is the only one of Stout’s circle whose work also appears in “Impact!,” an overview of winners of the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Awards, bestowed since 1979. The honors don’t go to artists only — congresswoman Bella Abzug got one in 1980 — but the notables represented here include Lee Krasner, Lois Mailou Jones and Judy Chicago (paying tribute to another woman, Virginia Woolf, with one of her “Dinner Party” plates).
A few of the artists, such as Chicago, attempt to redefine traditional women’s crafts by embroidering them with political statements: Joyce Kozloff’s three-part fabric piece includes a map of the Gaza Strip. But no single conceptual thread links such works as Maren Hassinger’s “Love,” made of pink plastic bags, and Beverly Pepper’s welded steel sculpture. Except that they’re both women’s work.