© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Kansas City's Belger Center, Artist Who Saw This Future Now Offers Off-Planet Refuge

Belger Arts Center
Renee Stout's 'Baby's First Gun,' from 1998, is on display at the Belger Arts Center.

When it comes to the relevance of her artwork in the post-Obama political landscape, no one could blame Renée Stout for saying she warned us.

Stout’s work has long been part of the collection at the Belger Arts Center. For decades, the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation has collected her paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces, which center on the African diaspora and African-American identity. Richard Belger, the foundation’s secretary, wrote the foreword to the 2002 catalog accompanying the center’s midcareer retrospective of Stout’s art, and key elements of that show have found their way into other theme-driven Belger exhibitions ever since.

That patronage pays new dividends in the recently opened “Church of the Crossroads: Renée Stout in the Belger Collection,” which, in an unplanned coincidence, underscores Stout’s February lifetime-achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.

Among her scorching statement works of years past: "Baby's First Gun," a 1998 mockup of a delicate pea shooter, “ABC” etched into the gunmetal, in a wooden box of pink and yellow and pale blue; and a crest of firearm replicas assigned to Geronimo, Harriet Tubman (her name carved into a wooden handle), John Brown and other oppressed figures.

In a category of its own remains 1997’s "The Chairman Watching the Game,” a bloody board game of violence and irresolution.

“My feelings today about those pieces are as raw, if not more raw, as they were at the time I created them,” Stout tells KCUR.

Credit Renee Stout
Renee Stout, whose work has long been part of the collection at the Belger Center for the Arts, won a lifetime achievement award from the Women's Caucus for Art.

“Things have actually gotten much worse,” she adds. “So I still have an emotional connection to those works and when I think back on them, I feel vindicated. People thought I was being didactic at the time I made them. Bill Clinton was president, but I was seeing what was coming down the road.”

But there’s a lifetime of art here: hulking art of metal and heirloom wood, paintings and simulated collages, handwritten messages, neon signs, hints of taxidermy. The show also includes a handful of pieces that postdate the Belger’s 2002 assemblage, alongside Stout’s alluring alter-ego fascinations Fatima Mayfield and Madam Ching, which formulate voodoo and fortune-telling tropes into playful, dreamy mini installations.

“A lot of people have never seen that political work and don’t know that I did that work at all,” Stout says. “But when people see my work at the Belger they are seeing it in a better context than they could ever see it in a museum. My work is a long-running narrative, and when people come to the Belger to see it, they can experience that way.”

And the lifetime-achievement laurel doesn’t signal an end to work by Stout, who grew up in Pittsburgh and has worked in Washington, D.C., for most of her career.

Credit Belger Center for the Arts
Stout says each body of her work contains a narrative, including her Madam Ching pieces such as 'Traveling Root Store #2 (Madam hing Goes High Tech).'

“My work has always been therapeutic for me, and so it often functions as a vehicle to work out my feelings and frustrations at stressful times like these,” she says. “Each body of work that I do has a particular narrative or theme that helps keep me focused on the message I’m trying to convey.”

Heading into a one-person show this fall at Hemphill Gallery in D.C., Stout is preparing a body of work for an exhibition she’s tentatively titled “In the Parallel Universe.”

“My aim is to show the viewer what I may see if I could just be off this planet for one moment, even if it is only in my imagination. And I can tell you, it’s a lot more fun, funky and full of humor than the reality we’re living now.”

Church of the Crossroads: Renée Stout in the Belger Collection,” through September 7 at the Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; 816-474-3250.

Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at editorscottwilson@gmail.com.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.