Who is Octavia Butler and why is the art world obsessed with her writing?

At this year’s Venice Biennale, one of the standout installations is Precious Okoyomon’s contribution to Cecilia Alemany’s main exhibition, The milk of dreams (until November 27). It is occupied by totemic figures made of raw wool, yarn, blood and dirt, surrounded by vegetation – sugar cane and the invasive, entangling presence of Japanese kudzu, a plant brought to the American South to try to heal the damage to the soil. caused by the excessive cultivation of cotton. It is a symbolic landscape, a reflection on enslaved and displaced peoples and their deep connection to the land and environment.

It is based on an earlier work by Okoyomon developed for the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt in 2020, where kudzu eventually ate the woolly figures. This work was called Earth seed and took its title directly from the new religion created by Lauren Olamina, the dreamy Los Angeles teenager at the heart of Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel. Parable of the Sower (and its 1998 sequel, Parable of the Talents), in which Olamina struggles to survive and then build a new community in the mid-2020s USA. It’s a place where civil society has largely collapsed after being ravaged by climate change and succumbing to a political bigot as a president who promises to make America great again.

Butler, who died aged just 59 in 2006, created speculative fiction that brilliantly reflects historical and contemporary inequalities and forms of activism, from civil rights to feminism. Her wide-ranging novels, written over 30 years, deviate from so-called “soft” or social science fiction such as the brutal and brilliant 1979 masterpiece. Relatives– where a 1970s writer travels back in time to 19th-century Maryland to intervene in the life of a slaveholding ancestor – to works that approach classic space opera fantasy, such as Xenogenesis series about human-alien civilizations formed after a nuclear apocalypse. Although she was the first writer in her genre to win a MacArthur Genius grant and is considered one of science fiction’s greatest exponents, Butler was ambivalent about being cheated. “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just happened to be called science fiction,” she said.

That Okoyomon chose to title her landmark project after Butler’s idea for Earthseed reflects the Pasadena-born writer’s growing influence among artists. Also in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, artist Toyin Ojih Odutola—whose dynamic graphic work you can imagine illustrating Butler’s stories—wrote for Earthseed and Parable of the Sower for gallerist Jack Scheinman’s online social and racial justice platform, States of being. “Speculative has always been my preference in times like these,” Odutola wrote, later adding that Butler’s words in Parable of the Sower “illustrate through Lauren’s fictional autobiography what resilience looks like: the daily work of building a new way of life—seeing and becoming.” She also cites Butler’s claim that science fiction allows her to explore “every aspect of humanity or the universe around us.”

This freedom of imagination is key to explaining why Butler’s work hits home among countless, wildly diverse artists. For Turner Prize-nominated Sin Y Kean, who uses drag to explore gender identity and racial injustice, Butler’s speculative fiction is crucial to finding ways to imagine “what a better world looks like and how it works. So in that way it functions as drag in that it’s a way of taking yourself out – for science fiction, out of your environmental and social context, and for attraction, out of your bodily context.

Alberta Whittle, who represents Scotland at the Biennale, quotes directly from Parable of the Sower in her video installation on climate and justice From the forest to the concrete (to the forest) (2019) and is based on the concept of “hyperempathy,” the fictional (and deeply metaphorical) congenital disease that Lauren Olamina must carry in A parable series where she physically feels the pain and pleasure experienced by those around her. Among the artists who have long looked up to Butler is Isaac Julien, whose video work Encore II (radioactive) (2004) was directly inspired by Lilith Iyapo, the cyborg protagonist in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (now known as Lilith’s conclusion), interspersed with references to African American researcher Matthew Henson. Butler’s interspecies creatures also helped sculptor Frances Uprichard envision her distinctive multi-legged figures fused with historical Asian gods, among other things.

Candice Breitz, the South African artist, said in a conversation for Art Gazettepodcast on Brush with… that she returned to Butler’s feminist science fiction “quite specifically” in relation to Labor (2019), a video piece in which she imagines babies who will grow up to be totalitarian rulers, sucked back into their mothers’ wombs. Breitz praises “Butler’s ability to use the language of the future to describe the present, and the fine balance in her writing between observing lived realities that won’t go away anytime soon—oppression and rigidity that are very real and very now—but then the way she reflects them through constructions of possible utopian everyday lives that sometimes slip into dystopia. And, of course, the very strong feminist message that resonates in her work.”

As Odutola says, “Butler’s virtuosity unites different interests.” Through them she frees artists to do the same; exploring the past, responding to the present, and envisioning possible futures.

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