Though widely read, novelists Octavia Butler and Angela Carter were often pigeonholed as “genre writers” in their time. In recent years, however, these women’s writings have experienced a resurgence in readership and, decades after publication, they still generate relevant political discussions about intersectionality, capitalism, and the environment. In a testament to their influence beyond the literary canon, two recent art shows engaged with Carter, Butler, and their vital subject matter, as well as the visuals that their writing inspired.
The Bloody Chamber (1979), possibly Carter’s most notable collection of stories, transports readers to a world of she-wolves, damsels who revolt, and other strong female creatures, retelling fairy tales from a feminist perspective. Her stories are rich with visceral imagery, but Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter, now on view at RWA in Bristol, centers less on illustration and more on the themes of horror, fantasy, and sexuality that pervade the late British writer’s work. The exhibition features artists who were either inspired directly by Carter’s work or who dealt with themes that relate to it. Co-curator Fiona Robinson told me, “In selecting the contemporary work for the exhibition I wanted to approach Angela Carter from the point of view of an artist, which is what I am, rather than an academic. I wanted to avoid work which merely illustrated her stories.”
Tessa Farmer, The Forest Assassins (detail), Installation view of Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter. Photo: Alice Hendy
The Los Angeles exhibition Radio Imagination drew from Octavia Butler’s archives now at the Huntington Library: a vast collection of papers, photographs, and ephemera that is an art piece in itself. Artists attempted to expand Butler’s unfinished works, an ambitious task considering the writer’s unorthodox organizational methods. Though she saved and archived all of her writing and papers, her cataloging systems varied and were sometimes utterly confounding. One envelope ominously labelled “Pandora’s Box,” read: “Owner not responsible for pain and damage to eyesight and mental health suffered while reading contents without permission.” Inside “Pandora’s Box” was an empty bag of potato chips, catalogued with the same precision as her unfinished manuscripts. It is perhaps a joke on the madness of the archival system, a paradoxical gift Butler left in the depths of the works she left behind. Butler died at the age of 58, in 2006, before she could finish her last novel Parable of the Trickster, leaving behind two filing cabinets and 35 large boxes of unfinished works.
Carter also died before her time, in 1992, while working on a sequel to Jane Eyre based on her stepdaughter. That she died while reinterpreting Charlotte Brontë’s text adds another layer of irony: the work of artists and writers dialoguing with one another seems to never be complete.
Artistic interpretations of literary texts respond to a common question writers ask themselves: when is a work done? If a story can be infinitely retold in film, theatre, and art—as the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who also recently has inspired several group shows themed around him) are—never. One wonders why visual artists don’t look to literature more for inspiration, considering that filmmakers have no qualms about doing so again and again. Perhaps visual artists feel responding to an author is inherently dangerous; there is a risk of the collection coming across as derivative or unserious (one need only look to the reputation of fan fiction in comparison). But what is most pressing about both Carter and Butler is the social relevance of their works, which is no doubt a reason we’re seeing artists engaging with them today.
Marcelle Hanselaar, Red Riding Hood 2, 2010. Oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Irene Rhoden
Strange Worlds steers clear of cultish artwork while still retaining the delightfully macabre quality of Carter’s oeuvre. Di Oliver’s Fairy Tale Book sculpture, a doll resting between the pages of a hardbound fairy tale, does not seem subversive or dark at first glance. But it is a subtle commentary on the misogyny of traditional fairy tales that Carter undermined in her stories. One thinks they are merely reading their young daughter a bedtime story, but they are nestling them into a world where female protagonists are powerless. As writers like Carter and Butler knew all too well, fiction can impact the perception of reality. Oliver’s sculpture materializes this idea.
Another piece that dialogues with the fairy tale theme is Marcelle Hanselaar’s Red Riding Hood 2, which relates to Carter’s reinterpretation of the fairy tale as a seduction of the wolf. Other works were commissioned especially for the exhibition. Fiona Robinson highlights Tessa Farmer’s installation The Forest Assassins, which “takes its inspiration from the forest scenes in ‘The Erl King’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’ stories. Tessa’s tiny skeletal fairies made from plant roots and bumble bee wings fly around the forest in crocodile skull ships trapping birds and performing other evil deeds.”
Now more than ever it is necessary to create art that empowers women and girls, and to write new stories that feature strong, complex female characters. Carter’s influence extended beyond her fiction writing; her essays such as The Sadeian Woman and Nothing Sacred approached pornography and sadism by looking at how gender and class factor into both. Looking at Marquis de Sade’s works, she argued that his cruel but powerful female protagonists were progressive as they balanced out the overwhelming amount of meek female characters in literature.
Lauren Halsey, And It Was a Natural Extension of My Dreaming, 2016, Installation view at Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. Courtesy Armory Center for the Arts. Photo: Jeff McLane Studio
Butler, too, saw the critical roles representation and visibility could play; she once countered a question about race with “Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, ‘Hey we’re here!’?” In her science fiction realms, Butler addressed racism, sexism, and classism, exposing injustices on Earth by envisioning alternate realities. Her world-building was great material for visual artists to illustrate new realities where Earth’s hierarchies don’t exist, or where they are even more exaggerated. In Radio Imagination, Lauren Halsey built an immersive structural work inspired by the landscapes of Octavia Butler’s novels that includes ravaged streets and living spaceships. In her installation And It Was a Natural Extension of My Dreaming, based on a description of an “ice desert” from one of Octavia Butler’s notebooks, pressing issues of climate change come into play. There is a long history of so-called “genre” writers making political statements in alternate worlds, such as the feminist writers who used the Gothic novel to interrogate the notion of female vulnerability, and the effect is often much stronger than it could have been in “realist” literature.
The same can be said of a work of visual art, which, in lacking language, can speak a universal truth. Connie Samaras took materials from Butler’s archives at the Huntington and overlaid them with images from the Huntington Gardens, creating an otherworldly representation of excavated imagery.
Connie Samaras, from the series The Past is Another Planet: Huntington Rose Garden. Courtesy of the artist and Armory Center for the Arts
Along with Sun Ra, Butler created a lexicon for Afro-futurist art movements to flourish, and because of her pioneering work, more writers of color were able to publish their fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction. As literary scholars continue to survey Butler’s archives and more readers are exposed to her writing, her works will undoubtedly inspire further art and literature that take into account her intersectional feminist perspective—a perspective that could hardly feel more urgent.
Both Carter and Butler broke ground in genre writing worlds that were dominated by white men, and created characters whose marginalized perspectives were not only placed in the center, but went on to shape strong role models for the next generation. In today’s political climate, their voices are needed to mirror the oppressed and inspire resistance.
Sóla Agustsson is a writer based in New York. She is working toward her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University and has contributed to The Huffington Post, FLAUNT, Bullett, Hyperallergic, Salon, and ArtSlant.
(Image at top: Di Oliver, The Fairy Tale Book, 2016, Altered book with handmade doll. Courtesy of the artist.)
Tags: Octavia Butler angela carter fiction art and literature feminism