February 27, 2013

21st-Century Griot

by Carol Hood (MFA 2014)

Samantha Hill (MFA 2010) remembers growing up in a family where five generations were alive at once. She learned a vast amount of history through oral tradition, a large component of African American culture. "I was engaged in a practice of hearing their [my family’s] lives, like the civil rights movement, or the great migration. History doesn’t depict them as being important. It’s like a footnote. Whereas when you hear stories about what people were going through during those periods, it is important for others to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”

This history inspired her to create A Jeli’s Tale: An Anthology of Kinship, an experimental project focusing on the archival of African American families spanning from 1910–2010. A jeli(also known as a griot) is a historian, praise singer, storyteller, and repository of oral tradition. Adopting the role of a jeli, Hill began collecting stories—first from her family, then from other families who were willing to donate visual and tactile artifacts, and a plethora of recordings ranging from candid interviews to audio clips of children playing. During the project, Hill will create several installations with her findings.

Displayed in December at the Southside Hub of Production, Hill’s first installation, The Great Migration, is a multimedia display housed inside artist Faheem Majeed’s rooftop shack. Onlookers enter a worn log cabin, lit dimly with kerosene lamps. An articulated collage of photographs are strung and clothes-pinned along the shack’s brown panels, and a sound-system pumps in interviews from Chicago residents. Future installations will also intersperse musical selections by blues singer Mamie Smith as well as other artists of the time. Hill wants her audience to hear the "cracks and pops” in the recorded backgrounds and be moved by what she calls the "timber of age.” "You hear their laughing, breathing,” Hill says. "They become more alive.”

Hill credits SAIC for providing her with the knowledge to handle such an intensely multilayered project. She recalls that SAIC’s interdisciplinary structure gave her the freedom to transform her sculptural practice beyond its traditional constraints. "Before I came [to SAIC],” notes Hill, "I was taught that the object belongs on the wall and is totally separate from the person. SAIC made me question that. If you feel your work doesn’t fit in the gallery, then it doesn't need to be in the gallery.”

As she continues A Jeli’s Tale (now called the Kinship Project), Hillhopes her audience will be struck by this rarely explored yet beautifully triumphant view on American history. She says, "I do have a dream of people using my collection and archive to engage the past in a more intimate way. Look at that person…look at what they went through. History is full of moments where we go through great strife, followed by moments of great joy. It’s my dream to hear from a person, how they survived those horrible moments, or how they celebrated the good ones.”

Learn more about Samantha Hill and the Kinship Project at samanthahill.net