Taking Root Among the Stars
A Note From Curator, Jaclyn Quaresma
Against the stars or what is foretold, this is what disaster really means. The word comes from the Italian word distaro, dis- meaning in negation and astro, the stars. Disaster is, in effect, to counter the wisdom and warning gleaned from the stars. It is to act despite, it is knowing better but doing anyways. 2020 is the result of disaster. 2020 is the year the privileged could no longer pretend that the societal systems in place were built to benefit all, if only some worked harder.
We see the results of this belief heightened by the manifold of symptomatic crises that arose over time from disastrous policies informed by oppressive ideologies. These crises include the subjugation of women, gross intersectional inequality based on race, sexuality, gender, class and ability, as well as environmental collapse. One only needs to consider the disproportionate illness and death among Indigenous, Black, and economically disadvantaged peoples, as well as the record levels of domestic violence reported during the current Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, for an illustration of the continuous severity of oppression [ 1 ]. There is no denying that the insidious, multifaceted oppression that is the cause of the listed symptoms, is deeply rooted in the systems, institutions and organizations that govern our ways of being. In other words, these disastrous systems are not broken. They are working exactly as they were designed (and people are dying).
Durham Art Gallery’s 2020 annual program was curated around the theme of Community. This almost seems ironic now as we in West Grey only recently emerged from the second, historic lockdown that separated families and strained friendships. These social sacrifices were made in the name of keeping each other healthy and safe. Could there have been a more challenging time to contemplate community? Or perhaps we can look at this from another perspective: Could there have been a more opportune moment to reconsider how we act in community, how we build connections, how we sustain ourselves in relation, and how we support one another both in community and across boarders? These are the questions that guided the Durham Art Gallery Team through the pandemic and that inform us today.
Creative practitioners across the country and globe are looking to the future and responding to these very issues from a position of radical love, anti-oppression and collectivity. An unfolding of five exhibitions will take place throughout 2021 at Durham Art Gallery and the MacLaren Art Centre. Each one will explore the possibilities of and define an extra-planetary feminist imaginary, guided by Octavia E. Butler's Earthseed Series, exploring what it can provide for living in and with the contemporary state of the world. The creative practitioners collaborating with Durham Art Gallery imagine then generate the possibilities that come from beginning again and living otherwise. While we shelter in place, physically distanced from community, the 2021 annual theme Earthseed seeks the stars as a reminder to look up as well as ahead, to consider ourselves as pinpricks in the fabric of time, as historically oriented in the expansive space we inhabit, as one of many, and as capable dispelling disaster through collective action.
The Earthseed Series, written in the 1990s by the prolific Black, science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, provides us with tools to maneuver through, with and in spite of oppression. These tools come in parable form. The books chronicle the life of a fictional, young, Black hyperempath named Lauren Oya Olamina beginning in 2024. Lauren forms an eco-feminist religion called Earthseed in response to the hardships she lives through and witnesses in Octavia’s apocalyptic near future. A white-supremacist, patriarchal, authoritarian ruler comes to power after an extremist populist movement, fires destroy the homes of human and more-than-human relations, a drug epidemic plagues the country, slavery is not-so-subtly reinstated, the gap between the wealthy and poor grows at an alarming rate, there is an exodus from urban centres to the rural outskirts… Octavia’s fictional apocalypse meets our reality face on.
Of the six planned books in this series, Octavia completed only two during her short life [ 2 ]. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents reimagine the Christian biblical parables of the same name, laying the groundwork for a future beyond patriarchy, systemic inequality and unjust governance on Earth. The goal of Earthseed is not solely spiritual or ethereal, on the contrary, it is concrete and specific: To take root among the stars. The four remaining, incomplete books are believed to have been guided by new parables under the Earthseed teachings as practiced by its main characters, putting Earthseed’s principles into practice on another planet located in the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri.
Borrowing from one of Earthseed’s most recognizable passages from The Books of the Living, this year’s exhibitions are titled Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, and Clay [ 3 ]. As we collectively imagine what the next four parables in the series may have been, the yearlong series will speculate the outcome of each of the unwritten books. What if the parables Sower, Talents, Trickster, Teacher, Chaos and Clay were the founding principles of society? What is possible then? And, how does one rebuild without a blank slate? These are the questions that Octavia gifts us, and these are the questions that centre our 2021 exhibitions.
Rebeka Tabobondung, Debbie Ebanks Schlums, Adrian Kahgee, Whitney French, Lauren Fournier and Ashely Jane Lewis as well as other creative practitioners who will be collaborating with Durham Art Gallery this year, not only reimagine the future but also reconsider what the exhibition can be in an age when distance is prevalent above all else and yet connection must be maintained for survival’s sake. Durham Art Gallery then embodies what Alpha Centauri could have been. Where Octavia imagines a planet elsewhere among their stars for the Earthseed colony to take root, artists, curators, practitioners and writers reimagine the exhibition as a live site of praxis, where Octavia’s hexology of parables are alive and working against disaster, informing us, and challenging us to create change for the future, together, here and now.
 Amanda, Taub. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2020.
 Eighteen of Octavia’s books were published in her 58 years.
 The Books of the Living are fictional books of poetry, reflections and guidance written by the protagonist of the Earthseed Series, Lauren Oya Olamina. Passages from the Books of the Living greet the reader at each chapter.
Butler, Octavia, E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books. 1993.
Butler, Octavia, E. Parable of the Talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 1998.
Taub, Amanda. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/world/coronavirus-domestic-violence.html.