A report by Doreen St. Félix for The New Yorker
Growing up, in a West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn, I was always taught to avoid a certain kind of woman. They dressed tellingly, in long, stiff skirts, their hair wrapped in beguilingly white fabric. They sat in cheap plastic chairs in front of small storefronts on Brooklyn’s broadest avenues. Signs advertised divination, for a price. These women were not Christian. By day, passersby would give their storefronts a wide berth; by night, I noticed, they would get closer, and enter.
These women were likely practitioners of hoodoo, sometimes called rootwork, a set of black folk traditions developed by enslaved West African people in America, which combined elements of vodou and Yoruba with Christianity. Rootworkers, who use roots, herbs, and other organic materials to conjure spirits, have occupied a paradoxical place in black culture for centuries, as Zora Neale Hurston observed in her 1935 book “Mules and Men,” an ethnography conducted in Florida and New Orleans, in which she accumulated a raucously vivid litany of reports revealing how hoodoo practitioners were publicly disdained for the regression they seemed to represent and privately revered for their power.
The artist Renée Stout has made work inspired by hoodoo for more than three decades. I first encountered her work on a recent visit to the New Museum, where her work currently appears in the show “RAGGA NYC: All the Threatened and Delicious Things Joining One Another.” Christopher Udemezue, also known as Neon Christina, formed the artist collective Ragga NYC in 2015. Its members, many of whom identify as queer and are of Caribbean descent, are united by a carnival aesthetic. The show includes staged photographs by Udemezue that re-create moments from Haitian and Jamaican insurrectionary history, and a bust of an enslaved woman, sprouting chains from her marble-colored scalp, by the artist Tau Lewis. But Stout’s “The Rootworker’s Table” had a lighter way of dealing with show’s mission of returning sensuality to the kinds of lives, both real and imagined, that have been flattened by cultural anxieties over time.
“The Rootworker’s Table” could be called a sculpture, but it functions more like a mise-en-scène: a small table sits on an old rug, is covered in tiny glass bottles and vials of different sizes. Looking down at the frosted-glass tabletop, you notice that some of the bottles are misted with age, others filled with amber-colored liquid. They glow, eerily; there is an electric light installed inside the table’s body, which is adorned with strange wooden knobs, switches, and a miniature TV screen. Hung on the wall above is a blackboard covered with careful but frenzied text: “Remember to gather,” followed by a list of herbs: catnip, bloodroot, golden seal, rosemary, sassafras. Another list, “important roots,” introduces less familiar names: “lucky hand,” “little john chew,” “orris root—aka love root”. An anatomical drawing of the heart is accompanied by a description of “the properties of high john the conqueror root,” and, under it, there is a list of “things i’ll need for the seduction of sterling rochambeau.”
Looking at the piece, one can imagine an actor carefully miming the plucking and measuring of leaves. It feels playful—close to, but not quite, kitsch. Stout, who has shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among many other institutions, recently told me over the phone that “The Rootworker’s Table” was inspired by an alter ego she invented in the early aughts, an urbanite rootworker whom she calls Fatima Mayfield; the table, Stout explained, was Fatima’s workstation. (She has also made a “Soul Catcher,” a “Spirit Detector,” and a neon sign for Fatima’s storefront (also in the New Museum show), which reads, “I Can Heal: Readings $2.”) The ingredients on the blackboard were taken from “Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs” and the glossary of Hurston’s “Mules and Men,” which lists spells for conjuring both love and disaster.
When I told Stout about my memory of Brooklyn rootworkers, she explained that she wants her art to provoke the cultural squeamishness that some black people have about folk practices. “As I started doing this kind of work, there was always fear surrounding it,” Stout said. “Anytime a woman, especially a black woman, is perceived as having some kind of special power, there’s fear.” She was also interested in puncturing the stereotypes of rootworkers as intimidating and aloof; at the table, we see Fatima caught in a moment of loneliness, performing the spell not for a client but for herself. I asked Stout if Sterling Rochambeau was based on a man Stout had known, and she laughed. “There is no real Sterling,” she said. “He’s a tall order.”
Like me, Stout first encountered hoodoo when she was a child; in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a woman everyone called Madame Ching lived in a row house with her name painted on the front window and watched people from her front stoop. “She would stare at you like she was staring right through you,” Stout recalled. “The young people were told to stay away from her. They thought she was weird. She seemed, in hindsight, a very lonely old woman.”
After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, where she studied painting, Stout began to research hoodoo, sensing that its folk traditions were dying out. She read hoodoo-related ethnographies and fiction; she used “Tell My Horse,” another travelogue by Hurston, published in 1938, to learn about vodou practices in Haiti and Jamaica. She consulted readers and priestesses in New Orleans and, after a bad breakup, received palmistry from a reader in Brooklyn. Back in D.C., she frequented a now-closed outpost of the Clover Horn Company, a store established in Baltimore in the nineteen-forties, which sold candles, incense, tinctures, and other supplies, and where “Sunday church people” would cautiously duck in. “It’s understood that we live in a Christian nation, and so dealing with anything else is seen as blasphemous,” Stout said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, no, that’s not fair.’ ”
At first, Stout used Fatima Mayfield simply as a prompt for dreaming up her sculptures. “You never saw her physical body, but you would always see her implements, her objects, her little machines,” Stout said; the pieces are influenced by the “folk altars” of the assemblage artist Betye Saar. But, after people started to ask what Fatima looked like, Stout took her first self-portrait as her alter ego—dressed, a little ostentatiously, in heels and sporting long, straight dreadlocks. In 2014, she started doing performances as Fatima, giving readings and talks about conjuring.
Stout has always been drawn to nkisi—sculptures from Central Africa that are believed to host spirits. “In cultures that produce things like that, there really is no separation between art and utilitarian objects and religious things,” she said. She likes going to antique shops and flea markets to find her materials, but she also likes making things; she designed the bottles for “The Rootworker’s Table” and laboriously created the wooden knobs. These days, she often pins a bundle of roots to the underside of an artwork, where it won’t be visible, for good luck. “I’m trying to say, ‘Okay, protect me,’ or, ‘Generate some cash for me!’ ” she told me, laughing.