I was reminded of a particular scene from Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” when I learned about Candace Hunter’s upcoming immersive exhibition “The Alien-Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E. Butler.” In the scene, Lauren Oya Olamina, the book’s young heroine, lends her friend a book about edible native plants (among them acorns, a motif Hunter makes use of in the exhibit), warning her that they must immediately prepare for the worst. Lauren seeks strength from knowledge, against the denial and forlorn hope for a “return to normal” among some in her community. Unfortunately, Lauren’s friend proves unwilling to admit the severity of their situation, prompting Lauren to consider ethical approaches to truth-telling and the complex relations between fear and authoritative power. In the end Lauren finds a way to impart the practicalities of personal empowerment and communal living without instrumentalizing fear to establish authority. Her lesson becomes our lesson as she shows us how perceived dichotomies—in this case, between truth and authority—can always be renegotiated and reimagined.
The Chicago-based artist Candace Hunter has been immersed in the worlds of science-fiction icon Octavia E. Butler for over a decade. Two previous exhibitions working with Butler have paved the way for Hunter’s largest solo exhibition to date, “The Alien-Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E. Butler” at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC). Her previous exhibit inspired by Butler, “So be it. See to it.” comprised a set of collages responding to quotations from Butler’s work. This new exhibition sees the artist expanding her engagement with Butler through an immersive installation incorporating work with plants, science experiments, soundscapes, a reading nook and even portals to other worlds.
Interest in Butler’s work has mounted among artists in recent years. Precious Okoyomon titled their 2020 installation, with wool and the invasive vine kudzu, “Earthseed,” after the change-based religion developed by Lauren in the “Parable” series. American Artist created a 2022 exhibition called “Shaper of God” offering their own take on the Earthseed religion to explore co-constitutive articulations of power and agency. Quotes from the novel can be heard in Alberta Whittle’s intimate video installation work calling for solidarity for displaced peoples in the Caribbean from 2019. And this summer, an adaptation of the “Parable” series was performed as an opera at the Lincoln Center in New York, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of “Parable of the Sower.” This artistic engagement reflects a broader interest in Butler, whose work speaks to a growing number of contemporary readers.
Artists and readers alike turn to Butler for her frank and uncannily prescient, portrayals of a dystopian world, or rather a world waking up to the consequences of its dystopic actions. (After all, “armageddon been in effect,” as Public Enemy put it.) The “Parable” series in particular deals with the multiple unfolding crisis of climate catastrophe, drug abuse and socio-political upheaval in a profoundly unequal American landscape replete with a president who promises to “Make America Great Again.” Through her science fiction Butler manages to make the world more real, allows us to see and grapple with the hard truths of our times, but she does not leave her protagonists and readers unarmed. Known as the mother of Afrofuturism, Butler imagines how to live ethical and flourishing lives in the face of great hardships and oppressive power dynamics. As in the example of Lauren’s lesson, even the fear of immiseration need not lead us into an authoritative regime, but can deliver us into new and more liberatory relations. Her characters embody the resilience of autonomous people working toward communal ends, and offer models of strength and tenacity for collective human (and sometimes alien) flourishing.
Hunter’s artworks operate through similar principles of imaginative renegotiation. “The Alien-Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E. Butler” combines the exposure of painful truths alongside exploring the means of resilience and vitality necessary for creating a better future in the here and now. As part of the exhibition, Hunter has made a series of doors which epitomize this sentiment. The door pieces are sad, ominous, many evoking tragic loss. Like Lauren’s truth-telling, Hunter forces us to confront our actual situation. Adorned with quotes, markers signifying family members who have been lost or found, and a photo-transfer collage of refugees, the doors reference historical events in which people had to flee their homes en masse. In Hunter’s hands the doors are not only symbols of loss, however, they are also portals to change. Making use of the theme of renewal and regeneration of the acorn and oak tree in “Parable of the Sower,” the exhibit includes an oak door with the inscription “In the end we yield to God.” It is her speculative realism, achieved through refusals of ignorance or resignation, that draws one into Hunter’s particular brand of Afrofuturism.
“The exhibition is looking at both endings and beginnings,” Ciera Mckissick, HPAC’s public programs manager, tells me. “It reflects the sociopolitical endings and beginnings in our tumultuous society.” Hunter’s work has long dealt with the compounding crisis of capitalism and climate change, with a focus on the politics of water. Working in this sociopolitically engaged vein, her practice builds on repurposing found materials. This is a practice she often uses in her collage work, and one she made use of in her ongoing series celebrating joyful Black women “Brown Limbed Girls,” which were featured as billboards for the city of Chicago to advocate precaution during the pandemic.
Her use of found materials has continued in this exhibition, expanding significantly. Materially, she is incorporating new elements and exploring new mediums such as sculptural work and experimental film. Embedded in the HPAC community, with a studio in the building, Hunter has been participating across the Center’s programming; taking classes, teaching and working with teens in the after-school and summer programs, and taking part in the HPAC’s quarterly Center Day activities. “The teens helped build the soft sculptures for the reading nook,” Mckissick says, adding that Hunter would open her studio on Center Days to enlist her visitors’ help with pompom creation and notes for the doors. “Many hands have helped with this exhibition,” Mckissick says.
Hunter has called the exhibition an “alien lush space,” an apt description for such an immersive installation. In addition to her work with doors and a section titled “Robledo,” there are two more parts, “Collisions of Worlds” and “Lillith’s Journey.” “Collisions of Worlds,” as Mckissick explains it, is “visual chaos, evoking broken worlds, broken matter,” with a horse-like statue at the center of it all operating as a complex metaphor for images from the “Lillith’s Brood” series as well as the tyrannical regimes of figures like Trump, Putin and Netanyahu. Similar to the “Robledo” section, this section does not shy away from the frightful; hanging above the evocative statue, however, is a neon sign conveying Hunter’s message of ongoing vitality and growth for those facing such terrors. Inspired by the “I can’t breathe” chants of Black Lives Matter protests, Hunter holds true to the visions of afrofuturism and announces: “the future is breath.”
Candace Hunter “The Alien-Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E. Butler” opens November 11, 2023 and runs through March 3, 2024, with a celebration day taking place December 9. An array of free public programming will featured throughout the exhibition and can be found here. These will include free writing workshops for BIPOC women and teens, reading circles, a celebratory read-a-thon, concerts, and an artist talk on January 15, 2024 exploring the ideas of speculative fiction and Afrofuturism entailed in the idea that “the future is breath.”