American Artist: Shaper of God
American Artist: Shaper of God
Featuring several new commissions spanning video, installation, sculpture, and drawing conceived for REDCAT, American Artist: Shaper of God takes inspiration from science fiction author Octavia E. Butler’s (b. 1947, Pasadena, CA) novels, life, and the lives of other African-diasporic people who formed, and were formed by, the adjoining communities of Altadena and Pasadena, California.
Shaper of God is the opening chapter of a multiyear research-based project by American Artist (b. 1989, Altadena, CA) that traces and teases various interconnections between the life and work of Octavia E. Butler; the evolution of rocketry and science fiction in Los Angeles; and the post-war movement of African-diasporic families from the Southern to the Western United States, a phenomenon known as the Second Great Migration. Using a historical materialist frame of study, American Artist's undertaking asks of the region and the frequency of Black people practicing art and science in Altadena, an enclave northeast of Los Angeles, “is there something in the water?”
The exhibition takes its name from an epitaph in the religious text “The Books of the Living”—written by Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of Butler’s 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower—instructing followers to "shape God." Dividing the gallery is Robledo Community Wall (Olamina cul-de-sac) (2022) a breached partition inspired by the looming barriers that enclose each community within Robledo, a city the book describes as "too big, too black, too poor, and too Hispanic to be of interest to anyone.” Home to Olamina at the story's outset, this once "green, rich, and unwalled city" located in greater Los Angeles was later fenced-in to protect denizens from thieves, drug addicts, the homeless, and other undesirables. Following multiple intrusions, the settlement is sacked and burned; in exodus, Olamina treks across a dystopic future-California ultimately finding refuge in Acorn, a diverse community founded by Olamina and a group of other survivors—including those escaping indentured sharecropping—united around a ceremony in which participants plant oak tree seeds as an act of remembrance, rebirth, and communion.
Within American Artist's rendition of Robledo-in-ruins lies a set-piece linking together other references from the novel with allusions to Butler and greater LA. In front of a bench fashioned with legacy signage resembling the city bus stops that Butler would have waited at—To Acorn (1968) (2022)—sits Yannis Window (2022), a simulation of an eponymous “media wall" installed on a house in Robledo to publicly broadcast the news while acting as a blind for its inhabitants. There, The Arroyo Seco (2022) a mockumentary produced by the Robledo Historical Society, a fictive entity created by American Artist, is screened. Parodying a vintage advertorial of a Pasadena landmark, the video reassesses the history, from colonial settlement till today, of the area of the same name—at different points in time, American Artist, Octavia E. Butler, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories have all been housed along the Arroyo Seco, a canyon, seasonal river, watershed, and cultural attractor that runs through the region.
A suite of framed drawings, Octavia E. Butler Papers: mssOEB 1-9062 (all 2022) line the gallery walls. These are rendered on the call-slips and institutional paper visitors use to take notes on while at the Huntington Library's Octavia E. Butler Archive. Quotations—such as Butler’s High School notes on Pasadena, a letter from her mother about growing-up in Louisiana and moving to California as well as a prediction about the 2020s written by Butler in 1993—are presented with other ephemera American Artist selected from the archive.
Like Butler, American Artist spent their formative years in and around the adjacent communities of Altadena and Pasadena, in 2013 they legally changed their name to embody a term commonly used to denote artists as representatives of the United States. Like Olamina, who can be read as a response to the dearth of Black characters in sci-fi, and as a complex proxy for Butler herself, American Artist’s appropriation of this title as their name establishes them within a context from which African-diasporic artists have often been excluded, while at the same time it also reroutes and blurs such characterizations. Their work spans multiple forms of media and narrative to provoke a rethinking of how history and information is used, by whom, and to what end. By coupling seemingly heterogenous ideas around technology, race, surveillance, identity, and place, American Artist coaxes new perspectives on how power and agency are articulated by and through each.
American Artist: Shaper of God is produced and organized by REDCAT and is curated by Adam Kleinman, Lead Curator for North America at KADIST, with Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett. Special thanks to: Eleana Antonaki, Lily Braden, Robyn Braden, Joel Ferree, Gail Irby, Ayana Jamieson, Steve Matousek, Chester Toye, and the Octavia E. Butler archive at the Huntington Library.
American Artist carried out part of their research for this exhibition while a grantee at the LACMA Art + Technology Lab, in communication with Ayana Jamieson, co-founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network as well as at the Octavia E. Butler archive at The Huntington, and through the Ways of Reading initiative at KADIST.