Jiha Moon: Narratives and your work have almost symbiotic relationships that exist somewhere between reality and fantasy, and you are in the middle of that. Are you Fatima when you make your work in your studio, or do you go back and forth between Renée and Fatima?
Renée Stout: Fatima Mayfield wasn’t my first alter ego. There was one before Madame Ching, who was a rootworker/fortuneteller. Initially, the alter egos came about because I am a very private person and was a little fearful about openly expressing certain things in my work. It was very easy to blame everything on the alter ego. Also, having an alter ego made it easy for me to create a narrative that I could build upon. At some point, I realized that the alter ego wasn’t just about creating a character to work from and process life through, it was about reinventing myself. The time I spend working in my studio has become the place and time where I become introspective and work on any issues that I may have, either with myself or someone else. It occurred to me one day that the woman I had become was not exactly the woman I wanted to be but was instead more of what my parents and this culture expected me to be. The earlier alter ego fit into that as well, so a new one was created. Fatima Mayfield was the woman I was giving myself permission to be. Creating her has helped me to unapologetically be myself and not be overly concerned about fulfilling other people’s expectations of me.
JM: You spoke about the relationship between religion and identity. This is something I often think about in my own work. My family was Buddhist for a long time, until my grandmother passed away and they turned to the Catholic Church. My feelings on the subject became much more objective after I moved to America. I think about the conflict between ancestral rites (Korea observes such ceremonies for Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day) and Catholic dogma. And then I realize that, historically, Confucian influence has been very strong in Korea. Respecting one’s elders and ancestors is a must. This aspect of Korean culture did not go away when people accepted Christianity. So it seems that religions and cultures collide and blend in order to survive, just like languages. Does religion play a role in your work?
RS: I think that the single best thing that my parents did for me was to instill a strong sense of right and wrong and an idea that there was a “higher power,” without caging those concepts in religion. My sister and I were free to go to church with either grandmother we wanted to (one was Baptist and one was Catholic), but we were never forced. As a result, religion never became the thing that I defined myself through and it didn’t make me divide myself from other people. My parents aren’t well-traveled people, but they clearly respect the humanity of others, even if they don’t understand the culture they come from. Their view of the world helped to shape my openness and curiosity about spirituality, without the religious/political baggage that people have brought to it. Like you, I have my own ideas about spirituality, but I’m still curious about how others try to define it.
JM: One of the qualities that I enjoy in your work is the way you welcome the viewer into your world with a personal take, as a point of entry into broader issues of identity. I am introduced to your ideas by your storytelling, which makes me more curious about you and your creations, which leads to “identity” in the end. I find this a more effective approach than beating the viewer over the head with identity issues first and foremost. This is an issue that I think about a lot as an Asian American artist. I often feel that my work is examined cheaply by others within the context of “East meets West” or as cultural tourism. I understand that some people might think this way and I work with the idea, but I don’t necessarily focus on it. Then, whenever I have a show and talk to people, there always seems to be a general viewer’s expectation that being an “Asian artist” is what I am about.
RS: First of all, thank you for understanding that my work is not about preaching “identity politics,” but simply expressing my “being.” I am who I am and my experiences, to date, have influenced the work that I choose to make. When I get up in the morning, my first thought is not “Oh, I’m an African American woman, how am I going to explain who I am to the world today?” It’s only when I step outside of my home/studio that I am reminded I am all of those things, so of course some of that seeps into my work, but it certainly doesn’t define all of it. . . .
Read the full article in BURNAWAY #2: EXCHANGE!