Close Looks: "Ogun" by Renée Stout
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Ogun is a sculpture just under three feet tall, made of many different materials that are attached to a three-dimensional rectangular core. Although it is an abstract sculpture, it is composed in a way that makes it possible to describe its three vertical sections as a sort of head and body standing on a rectangular base. The body and base sections each have four sides, because of the shape of the core to which the sculpture’s elements are attached. This description will start with the sculpture’s top (head). The description will then proceed to the middle (body) and bottom (base), focusing first on the primary, or front side, then the right and left sides (that is, our right and left sides as we look at the sculpture), and finally the back side.
The top, or head, of the sculpture is a cylindrical form with a rounded top and a rounded, bulging ridge protruding at the top on the front side. The bottom of the cylindrical form is encircled with metal studs at regular intervals. On the front, just above the row of studs, left of center, the number 1957 is imprinted on the form’s surface. It looks as though the cylindrical form is metal, but close inspection reveals that it is actually wood; on the back of the form, some wood grain is visible and there is a very faint split at the top on the left side. On the front side of the form, there is a buildup of an iridescent, grainy material, perhaps spray paint.
The front of the sculpture’s middle section, or body, is made of one large metal piece bolted to its core, and six tiny metal pieces. The large piece is an automobile part, roughly rectangular in shape, probably from an exhaust system, with raised horizontal ridges and perforated holes throughout the center of the piece. It is positioned vertically, with its short sides at the top and bottom of the sculpture’s body. Placed this way, it resembles a stylized rib cage, or, since it is made of metal, perhaps an armored breastplate with either breathable chainmail, given the perforations, or possibly more darkly, evidence of the kind of bullet fire the breastplate protects against. The boundaries between the edge of the car part and the sculpture’s internal support are blurred and the entire surface of the front side is covered with a dusting of a substance that looks like powdery rust. At the upper right of this front side, placed in a manner to suggest medals or lapel pins, there are six tiny metal replicas of hand tools, each just over an inch long: a hand saw, a wrench, a hammer, a chisel, a mallet, and pliers.
The right side of Ogun’s body (that is, the side at our right — technically it would be Ogun’s left side) is composed of six types of objects attached to the core: part of an accordion, a metal claw tool (made for use in a kitchen or garden), several cloth pouches filled with some kind of substance that makes them malleable, the head of a doll, a spark plug, and metal woodworking or construction nails. The accordion part is readily identifiable as such by inscriptions on metal plates visible at three of its corners, each of which says: “Imperial Accordion Trade Mark” and includes a doubled anchor image. The claw of the metal tool has been bent, so that the tool resembles a forearm and fist emerging from the accordion, which then reads as a sleeved upper arm or – since the armor-like form of the car part is visible from this angle – the accordion might be armor designed to protect the shoulder. At its upper end, the metal tool wraps around a cylindrical piece of wood that is attached to the sculpture’s core. At its lower end, one “finger” of the claw presses into the surface of one of the cloth pouches. There are fifteen total pouches between two and three inches in diameter attached to this side and they are made of different types of cloth. They are attached with nails to the sculpture’s side in a cascading manner, starting just above the lower edge of the accordion and extending down to the very bottom of this middle section – there is maybe a millimeter of distance between it and the bottom section of the sculpture. Among the cloth pouches, just behind the metal claw tool’s “elbow,” the head of a doll is suspended upside down. It is just slightly larger than the largest of the cloth pouches and blends in with them as it and they are all covered with a powdery substance that looks like dirt or rust and that glistens in the light. The doll head has a cloth pouch inside its hollow interior, which is tied to one of the accordion’s metal elements. At the lower right corner of this side, a spark plug, largely covered in rust, is nestled among the pouches.
On the left side of the body, there is another part of the accordion and an additional fourteen cloth pouches nailed to the sculpture’s core. As they do on the right side, the cloth pouches hang from a point midway down, starting at the lower edge of the accordion part, which roughly covers the top half of the left side, and extending to the bottom of the section. In addition, there is an animal horn, a large bird’s leg and foot, a metal bell on a chain, and a metal pulley. The horn, which has four prominent ridges around it, is positioned along the side of the accordion part that abuts the sculpture’s back side. Its form, though attached to the side, curves towards the back. Its thicker end (the end that would have been closest to the animal’s head) overlaps with the lower, studded portion of the sculpture’s head. A length of string is wound around the horn near its thicker end and a nail through the string attaches it to the sculpture. The bird leg is positioned along the side of the accordion part closest to the sculpture’s front side. The toes on the foot of the bird leg point upward and the joint that would have attached to the bird’s body is positioned at the lower edge of the accordion part. If we think of the accordion part here, as on the other side, as something like a shoulder, perhaps the bird leg is the forearm and hand — if so, then perhaps the sculpture has this arm (remember, its right arm) bent and its hand presented in a gesture of some sort. The metal bell and pulley hang, respectively, on the edges closest to the back and front sides of the sculpture, near the bottom edge of this side. The bell is suspended on a metal chain, which is nailed to the sculpture’s core midway through the length of the chain, so that some of its links drape down. On this side, as on the others described, the objects attached to the sculpture are covered with the same granular reddish-brown substance that looks like rust or dirt.
The back of the sculpture’s body is almost entirely covered by two objects attached to the central core, both computer parts. Across the upper portion of the back is a hard drive, positioned horizontally. Its components are encased in a glass-covered case divided into two square-shaped chambers that look like shoulder blades. In the left-hand chamber, a black and silver-colored disc are visible — the hard drive’s platter — with a silver-toned mechanical arm and disc beside it. In the right-hand chamber, blurrier glass covers a circuit board. Beneath the hard drive, positioned vertically and resembling a torso, or perhaps a spine in relationship to the hard drive’s shoulders, is a circuit board with many rectangular computer chips placed mostly vertically on the surface. About two-thirds of the way down the circuit board, there is a small semicircle of five nail heads. On the back, as on all the other sides, all the elements are covered in the reddish-brown dusty coating.
The base of the sculpture’s body is a one-inch rectangular piece of wood varnished with a deep red-brown color and screwed to a three-part wooden platform with a Phillips-head screw at each corner. The platform is comprised of three rectangular pieces of wood, all painted a matte dark brown, that are stacked so that the lowest piece, about an inch tall, projects farthest. Along the outer edge of the lowest piece there is writing that continues around the entire perimeter of the sculpture. More about that in a moment. The middle piece of wood in the platform, a little less than an inch tall, functions as a kind of lip for the third, which is taller — a little over three inches tall. On each of the four sides of this third piece of the wooden platform, an old photograph (possibly a tintype) is affixed and centered, in each case a portrait of a Black man. On the front, left, and right sides, the photographs are slightly smaller, so that the bottom edge of their wood frames rests on the lip of the tall part of the platform; on the back, the photograph and its frame are larger and it rests on the lowest of the three blocks of the platform.
The photograph on the sculpture’s front side shows a man seated, half length, in a frontal position. His left arm rests on the arm of a chair and his right hand rests on a book, placed on his knee. He wears a three-piece suit, with pants, vest, coat, and cravat all in the same tone. His hair is parted off center and he has a mustache and beard; he looks straight ahead.
The photograph on the right side (our right side, the sculpture’s left side) is of a seated figure, angled three-quarters to the camera, so that he turns slightly to our right. He sits in an ornate chair, his left arm resting on a table with a patterned tablecloth. The background of this photograph is plain behind his head and shoulder, with an ornate chair rail in its lower portion and a carved pilaster at the right edge. The man’s coat is buttoned high, the knot of a necktie visible at his throat. He is clean shaven and wears his hair short, looking slightly toward the right edge of the photograph.
At the sculpture’s left side, the man in the portrait sits facing and looking forward, and we see the full length of his body. He sits in an upholstered chair set against a blank background. He places his right hand on his leg with his elbow akimbo. In his left hand he holds a formal brimmed hat and its brim brushes against his leg. He is clean shaven and has short hair. He wears pinstriped pants, coat, and vest, and his tie is knotted at his collar. He looks straight ahead into the camera lens.
On the back side, the portrait shows a half-length, or perhaps slightly less than half-length, view of the man – we see him to his elbows and mid-torso, with the edges of his arms extending beyond the edge of the photograph. He faces forward, his head ever so slightly tilted to our left. He wears a light-colored coat over a darker double-breasted vest, with a watch chain just visible. He wears a white shirt and a striped tie with an elaborate knot positioned off center, to his left. He has short hair, a mustache, facial hair on his chin and mutton chops. A slight flush of pink tint has been added to his cheeks and lips.
In addition to the text on the bottom of the platform, there is writing at the platform’s upper edge. It is hand-written in a creamy yellow colored paint, in delicate, precise characters. The characters are mostly English capital letters, as well as some numbers and symbols, written as though they might form words in another language. The written text opens on the front side of the base, on either side of the photograph’s upper edge. On its left: “AN INKISI TO PROTECT YOUNG BLACK” and on its right “MALES – 20TH CENTURY & BEYOND →.”
Written on the outer edge of the flat surface of the lowest part of the platform, and framed by fifteen to twenty symbols on either side, is the English phrase: “OGUN – WHY DO THEY ACCEPT BULLETS EASIER THAN THEY ACCEPT LOVE?” Each of the “O”s in that phrase has a dot in the middle. On the right side at the outer edge of the platform, the lettering continues. “LAWRENCE PREE STOUT SR. (1910-1993).” Seven symbols follow. Then “GRANDPA!” The word “Grandpa” is just below the left edge of the photograph positioned above it. Then over forty symbols. On the left side at the edge of the platform, the text reads: “JESSE OWENS SR. (1911-1987). PAP!” Then forty-eight symbols occupy the majority of the space on this side, after which there are more English words: “SPIRIT OF=OGUN.” Finally, on the back of the sculpture’s platform, six symbols, followed by a concluding statement in English: “THEY WERE STEELWORKERS, MECHANICS, TRUCK DRIVERS, HUNTERS…WARRIORS IN A BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL – THEIRS…AND MINE.” Placed just above the ellipsis right before the word “AND” the artist’s monogram and signature appear: her stylized initials “R” and “S” in a small square, and just below them, written in three lines: “RENÉE” then “STOUT” then the date, “1995.”
I see corroded metal, a vaguely anthropomorphic form, attached bundles, and an eclectic collection of parts. This object invites us to look closer, and each time I look at it, I find something new. Today, I’m drawn to the four photographs and writing around the base. Each of the photographs depicts a seated male. They all wear suits and present a formal version of themselves. I wonder: who are these men? What were their histories?
Seeking answers, my eyes are drawn to the text circling the base, written in English and a symbolic script I cannot read. The English text includes names: Jesse Owens Sr (1911-1987) and Lawrence Pree Stout Sr. (1910-1998) as well as phrases “Ogun — why do they accept bullets easier than they accept love?,” “they were steelworkers, mechanics, truckdrivers, hunters… warriors in battle for survival — theirs… and mine,” and “An inkisi to protect young black males – 20th century & beyond →” Thinking of powerful inkisi and metal, my eyes are drawn upwards to examine the mechanical parts and bundles, continuing my visual exploration.
– Carlee Forbes is a curatorial fellow specializing in the arts of Africa, provenance, and collection histories at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and received her PhD in art history from UNC-Chapel Hill
Renée Stout, American, born 1958, Ogun, 1995, wood, metal, and other materials, 34 1/2 x 16 3/4 x 13 1/2 in. (87.6 x 42.6 x 34.3 cm). Ackland Fund, 97.6.1. © 1995 Renée Stout.
At first glance I’m reminded of R2-D2. Could Ogun have been the inspiration for this character in Star Wars?
Then I really look at this nearly three foot tall rusted metal sculpture and am intrigued by the details. Small in stature, it exudes strength. Its erect stance, the metal material, that it is standing on a pedestal — these suggest this figure deserves respect.
The body appears to be a Bucket-A-Day — a coal burning furnace that used to be the water heater in my childhood home. Computer parts, an accordion, spice packets, a doll’s head, a metal garden tool, a chicken leg are assembled to create this sculpture. What significance do these objects have?
Looking even closer, I see tiny words on the edge of the steps of the pedestal — “why do they accept bullets easier than they accept love?” Who are “they”? Flanking each side of the base of the pedestal are four sepia photographs and more words: “steel workers, mechanics …warriors in a battle for survival — theirs and mine.”
Is Ogun a protector?
– Carol Richards has been a docent at the Ackland Art Museum since 1992 working with groups of all ages and widely varied interests; currently she is enjoying retirement with her dogs, eagerly awaiting the resumption of in-person museum tours.
- What words come to mind when you look at Renée Stout’s sculpture? What do you see that inspires those words?
- There are many parts to this artwork. As you create an inventory, consider how different components of the sculpture relate to one another and to associations outside of the sculpture as well.
- In the handwritten gold text at the top of the sculpture’s base, Stout calls her sculpture “AN INKISI TO PROTECT YOUNG BLACK MALES – 20TH CENTURY & BEYOND.” A nkisi (plural minkisi) is a spiritual power figure popular in many groups in central Africa. Minkisi are often figures carved in wood with hollowed out bellies and heads. They are imbued with spiritual power through the organic matter stuffed inside them and the various objects attached to them. Knowing that, what new questions or observations come to mind when looking at this sculpture?
- Ogun is the god of iron and war in Yoruba faith, embraced by the Yoruba people in Nigeria and practitioners worldwide. Consider Stout’s decision to title this work Ogun. What connection can you draw between the artwork’s materials, form, text, imagery, and meanings and the Yoruba god of iron and war?
- Read more about Renée Stout’s Ogun in the Ackland’s About the Art guide.
- Visit the artist’s website.
- Listen to an oral history interview with the artist from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
- Learn more about power figures from Khan Academy and view examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum.
- Read the book Astonishment & Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout, published in conjunction with an exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Full text available through UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries.
- See more images of Ogun in the collection database.
Artist Conversation: Renée Stout
Friday, March 12, 2021 | 3:30 – 4:30 p.m. EST
Join us for a conversation between artist Renée Stout and the Ackland’s Lauren Turner, assistant curator for the collection. Stout’s work Ogun (1995) is part of the Museum’s permanent collection and is featured in the digital Close Looks project. In this free public conversation, we’ll revisit Ogun twenty-five years on, using the work to explore Stout’s artistic trajectory, including the state of her current projects. Sign up for free tickets to this virtual artist conversation here.
Close Looks at Cocktail Hour: Renée Stout’s Ogun
Wednesday, March 17, 2021 | 5:00 – 5:45 p.m. EST
Join the Ackland’s Object Based Teaching Fellow, Erin Dickey, for an informal conversation focused on one work of art from the Ackland’s new Close Looks digital feature. Plan to look closely and think collectively—and bring a drink of your choosing. On March 17, we’ll look at Renée Stout’s piece, Ogun. Registration is limited. Sign up for free tickets to this virtual interactive program here.