So Be It. See To It. invites viewers to imagine possible futures

Candace Hunter creates collages inspired by the works of Octavia Butler

by Kate Nadel

March 1, 2019

For those who organize in their communities, it can feel as though we are constantly fighting against what the world throws at us. In an era of political whiplash (a political moment characterized by seemingly never ending assaults on civil liberties), how do we imagine, articulate, and actually build what it is we are fighting for? So Be It. See To It, a series of collage works by Chicago-based artist and water rights activist, Candace Hunter, in dialogue with the literary works of Octavia Butler, asks this question and invites viewers to do the same, by exploring themes of resilience, imagination, and freedom.

For those that have read Octavia Butler, known for her prophetic science fiction and dystopian works, this exhibition is a special experience. Her 1998 Parable of the Talents (sequel to Parable of the Sower) imagined a right wing political figure rising to power in a dystopian United States with the promise to “Make America Great Again.” Though the Trumpian slogan had been used first by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton throughout their campaigns in the 80s and 90s, they did not center their campaigns around the phrase like Trump has. Yet, Butler prophetically understood the destructive power those words held. Her other works, all interlaced with sharp critiques of racism, sexism, and right wing extremism, explore other worlds, time travel, and envision methods of building community. The Shoestring spoke with Hunter who shared the impact that Butler had on her life and work. “After reading Kindred when it first came out, I thought, so here was this black girl who kind of looked like me. How cool. I’ve not turned back from that.” On her inspiration for the exhibit, she said, “I knew that I wanted to visually retell her stories, and I wanted the artworks to read.”

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From Fledgling series

The show’s title, So Be It. See To It, an inspirational self-affirmation that appears again and again throughout Butler’s personal reflections, is drawn directly from her own private journals. The journals have recently been put on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Hunter recalled seeing Butler’s hand-written words, “I was thrilled by not only hearing and reading about things that were private to her, but seeing her handwriting. She inscribed ‘So Be It. See To It,’ on many pages in different colored ink.” The phrase is particularly relevant for those who organize, agitate, and act to build a better world. The title and exhibition offer a space for organizers, community members, and artists to connect their visions of a just future to the political and social realities we are facing today.

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Xenogenesis trio

Upon first entering the gallery space, you are confronted with three brilliantly vivid collages of dense foliage, set upon a deep red wall. Reminiscent of Kehinde Whiley’s portraits, which feature Black subjects set against vibrant backgrounds of both graphic and naturalistic flora, Hunter’s first works in this exhibition pull the viewer in to examine the details, delicate flowers, and hidden faces within the three collages. Visitors are immediately confronted with the inspiration for the three works, a quote from Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, “‘Human beings fear difference,’ Lilith had told him once. Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give themselves definition and status.”

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From Patternmaster series

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From Kindred series

The exhibition then splits into four subsequent sections, each section relating to one of Butler’s works. As you move through the exhibit, you move through Butler’s literary canon as well. Kindred, Patternmaster, and Fledgling, all works written by Butler between 1975 and 2005, are reimagined as a series of 15 5×5 inch collages, while Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are represented as two side by side poster sized collages. Each series uses imagery and themes from each novel, drawing out larger concepts from these books that resonate with both readers of and novices to Butler’s work alike.

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Entire Kindred series

Printed on the wall above the final exhibition, a display of works created by visitors, reads the instruction, “Reconfigure the materials of the past and present to imagine different futures.” Visitors are invited to use materials provided by the gallery to create their own collages, and display them adjacent to Hunter’s works.

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Materials and prompt questions for viewer’s to make their own collages

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Collages done by viewers of exhibition

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Wall of collages made by viewers

In Western Massachusetts and particularly Northampton, there are many local struggles that are emblematic of larger societal issues. We are not only fighting against the deportation of Eduardo Samaniego, we are fighting for a world without borders – where the migration of people is seen as human experience, not a cause for exploitation, violence, and racism. We are not only fighting against the militarization of the police, we are fighting for a world without the threat of state sanctioned violence against community members. Spaces that foster creativity and imagination are crucial to our political endeavors. Organizing, resistance, and politics are all an exercise in imagination put into action.

So Be It. See To It,  is on view at the Hampshire College Art Gallery until March 17, 2019.

Candace Hunter is a a collagist and a water rights activist. To learn more about Hunter’s water activism, check out this piece on her 2018 exhibit Dust in the Veins.

Kate Nadel is a political activist and community member in the Pioneer Valley.

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