Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Transdisciplinary Artist and Archivist Samantha Hill

Working with individuals and communities, transdisciplinary artist Samantha Hill works in collaboration with the public to create works based on personal stories and photography donations. Presented as multimedia presentations, performances and installations, her work aims to investigate how memory, location and history intersect within society. The Kinship Project, an archive of 145 years of Family photography (1867 to 2012), oral history recordings, artifacts and ephemera, contains over 3000 candid and professional family pictures (vintage photos, scrapbooks, tintypes & digital images), mostly of African Americans from across the country. We reached out to Hill to discuss the project as well as place-based work in Alaska and North Carolina, and an upcoming exhibition online at the University of Michigan.

The Great Migration (2012). Photo credit: Tony Smith.

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Can you tell us about the evolution of The Kinship Project and the development of historic art facilitation projects?

SAMANTHA: My interest in collecting photography began with a box of African American family photographs I found on eBay. I was looking to create an installation about the African American experience, but I wanted to experiment with the form by creating an abstract collective memory narrative of various subjects.  So, I developed an experimental installation called An Anthology of Kinship, which consisted of 100 years of photography circa 1900 to 2000.  I installed the photographs ranging from 3 x 3 inches up to 4 x 6 inches on a series of clotheslines to reference domesticity.  The clothesline represented collective memories from the Black experience to display how the image concepts related to each other instead of chronological dates.  For example, I installed weddings next to funeral marches or vacation snapshots connected to children playing within the family home.  This installation allowed me to push the concept of the timeline further to create a second installation titled The Great Migration.  

The Great Migration focused on three Chicago families’ migration stories.  Each family story represented a different chapter:  Chapter 1: Life in the South; Chapter 2: The Train Ride North; and Chapter 3: Life in Chicago.  I collected narratives from Chicago historian Sherry Williams, founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, and other volunteers to build a soundtrack describing the migration journey.  I also constructed the photo installation within Faheem Majeed’s architectural sculpture, How to Build a Shack, which was a makeshift art center built on the roof of the SouthSide Hub of Production community center.  Faheem’s work was reminiscent of a southern shack from the Great Migration period.  Therefore, it was the perfect frame to create an installation with a selection of photographs from 1916 to 1970 and oil lamps to illuminate the space.  

This experiment turned out quite well, and An Anthology of Kinship eventually became the Kinship Project, over 170 years of African American family photographs, manuscripts, and objects ranging from 1839 to 2012.  I continued to collect photography for the Kinship Project to develop new installation projects while receiving invitations to research and activate photography collections in private collections and museum archives, such as the Anchorage Museum.  

In 1915, Anchorage was a white tent community. The tent contains the story soundtrack of Vic Fischer, Anchorage city planner & co-author of the Alaskan constitution. Visitors viewed regional photos from Steve McClutchen through the stereoscope.Project sponsored by the Rasmuson Foundation, Anchorage Museum and McColl Center for Visual Art & Innovation. Reminiscence: The Story Of Vic Fischer (2015)

DUGGAL ART SCENE: In some sense, your approach to the field of photography could be viewed as public art: through the creation of multimedia installations and performances, working with archives, oral story collecting, social projects & art facilitations. What role do sharing and interpersonal relationships play in your practice?

SAMANTHA: My process is to interview local historians or community leaders who have engaging stories about their region as the inspiration for developing an installation project.  I’ve always enjoyed listening to stories that people share about their lives and discovering how those memories connect to history.  So, I create social spaces that embody this type of experience.   My interviews are a friendly conversation with the interviewee.  We are strangers when we meet, but the act of sharing conversation establishes a friendly relationship between us.  When I play an interview soundtrack in my installation, it brings a more personal experience in the space for the person who interacts with it and the viewer also becomes a part of the relationship.   

Location is an essential aspect of my projects because historical places, such as buildings and other living structures, invoke memory.  This concept inspires me to construct installations in landmark locations or artist-built spaces to frame photography, sound, and objects in an interactive environment.  An example of this type of project is Reminiscence: The Story of Vic Fischer, my residency presentation at the Anchorage Museum.

Reminiscence was an interactive installation that shares the story of Vic Fischer, an Alaskan urban planner and co-author of the Alaskan Constitution.  He spent his early years in the continental US before migrating to Alaska territory to become an urban planner during the 1950s.  The installation played a soundtrack of Vic Fischer’s experiences within a glowing white tent to reference Anchorage’s origins as a tent community.  Visitors viewed photographs dating between 1950 and 1977 from regional documentary photographer Steve McCutcheon through a stereoscopic viewer to reference images of Alaskan life narrated in Vic’s life story. 

Reflections In The Moment (2013)

DUGGAL ART SCENE: The Kinship Project is in part concerned with the exploration of what you describe as “the collective memory of a region, which grants insight into the contemporary interests of a community.” How do you think the nuance of place is affecting the division we see in the United States right now?

SAMANTHA: Well, this is a complicated question that could be answered in many ways depending on your point of view.  People that live in the same space, whether it’s the same city or the same home, could potentially disagree on critical issues present in our current political environment.  One question to consider is whether we can discuss societal problems to discover potential solutions in relation to place?  

An example of this is the Reflections in the Moment installation, which reflected my experiences learning about the Double Oaks neighborhood’s former residents in Charlotte, NC, who were displaced by gentrification.  This installation represents Darryl Gatson who shared his childhood stories about the comradeship of the African American community in a facsimile of Darryl’s home built within a mobile trailer.  The trailer was activated with Darryl’s narratives, while a 35mm slideshow projection of our conversation played in the rear of the mobile sculpture trailer built by artist J McDonald.  The mobile trailer installation traveled to different Charlotte locations to represent the fragility of the concept of home within displacement.  This work didn’t answer the problems associated with gentrification, but it did provide a space for discussion about what is lost in this particular situation.

Burning the Mortgage of the Phyllis Wheatley Home, Detroit, MI January 4th, 1915. Photographer: Harvey Jackson. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library: David Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Currently, you have a fellowship at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.  What are you working on and what is your vision for this work’s presentation in the public sphere?

SAMANTHA: Academic libraries and historical societies have extensive art collections and gallery spaces for the exhibition of their materials.  They also develop digital exhibitions to extend their outreach efforts to wider audiences.  My work as an artist is very similar to the archivist profession.  Therefore, I’ve spent the last two years studying archival studies at the University of Michigan while participating in a fellowship at the William L. Clements Library.  The focus of the William L. Clements Library collections is early Americana books, manuscripts, and graphic arts.  The purpose of my fellowship at the Clements Library is to learn the best practices in archival studies while working under curators’ mentorship at the Clements Library.  My role is to learn processing techniques and develop exhibitions that will preserve and promote archival collections for research, education, and cultural enrichment.  The library has an extensive collection of African American photography, which is the subject of my digital exhibition for the library website.  

The exhibition titled Framing Identity:  Representations of Empowerment and Resilience within the Black Experience is centered around the writing of Frederick Douglass about the importance of photography to construct personal identity.  Douglass was the most photographed person of his time.  His lecture discussed how photography could change negative stereotypes depicted in African American caricatures by commissioning a self-portrait.  The website will explore different portrait photography while referencing topics connected to current events, such as community engagement, the 1918 flu pandemic, voters’ rights, and elections.  The William L. Clements Library will publish this exhibition on their website in early December.  

IMAGE HEADER: Samantha Hill. Photo credit: Tony Smith.

Find out more about Samantha and her work here: samanthahill.net 

Stayed tuned for Samantha’s online exhibition at the University of Michigan’s The William L. Clements Library here: clements.umich.edu/public-programs/exhibits/#online-exhibits

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