Somehow, in 1891, Portia Cobb’s great-grandmother came in possession of 24 acres of land in the South Carolina Marshlands. Cobb knows this much, for she has the original handwritten land deed to prove it. But how a married black woman in the South at the turn of the century would acquire such land remains a mystery to Cobb.
This is one of the questions at the heart of Yonges Island, a video-in-progress by the Milwaukee-based mediamaker and university associate professor. In investigating her great-grandmother’s legacy, Cobb will spin a portrait of the African American community that settled on Yonges Island in the 19th century. Located close to Charleston, a busy port of call where captured Africans were traded, the island became an enclave where African traditions and the gullah dialect survived for generations, and a black community thrived.
Yonges Island will be composed of three parts, Cobb says: “The history of the founding community, the memory of the land, and the vision (for the future use of the land).” They will be combined in a one-channel triptych “which might also evolve into a tri-partite installation or video projection,” says the artist. One section contains its own unanswered questions, as the story of these 24 acres is still unfolding. While technically in family hands, the property has long been abandoned as descendents have left the island for careers and modern conveniences. Like most of the Yonges Island descendents, they return only for family reunions, summer vacations, and burials.
“Our parents, second generation heirs, have worked all of their lives in cities like New York or Los Angeles and are not property owners at the age of retirement. Meanwhile, land that belongs in the family sits neglected,” Cobb says. It’s not only neglected, but sometimes lost. Squatters claim ownership, or younger heirs sell off the estates, so now horse stables, golf courses, and gated communities are spreading as fast as kudzu. Cobb’s own family members, scattered across the country, are unresolved about what to do with their beloved but distant homestead.
“Often in my work, I deal with the notion of home and place, movement and flux,” says Cobb. It’s no wonder; Cobb was born in the Bronx, raised in Los Angeles, then settled in Berkeley for her first career as an alternative radio producer. Her move into filmmaking was precipitated one day by an on-air caller, who asked, “Did you ever consider being a film editor?” As Cobb recalls, “It hadn’t entered my mind until then,” but the idea took hold.
Initially, says Cobb, “I worked backwards. I would record interviews, then look for images. I was really attached to sound, attached to recording voices on my Nagra tape recorder.” No Justice, No Peace, her 1992 thesis film for San Francisco State University, was built around interviews with black men after the Rodney King beating, culminating in the trial lawyer’s demonstration of 56 strikes in 18 seconds. By this time, all of Cobb’s stylistic elements were in place: a political or social theme, a collage approach to sound, and a rich layering of visual elements.
This approach was further refined in Don’t Hurry Back (1996). Based on the proverb, “Don’t hurry back from anything requiring patience,” the video grew out of three trips to Africa. It, too, explores notions of home, says Cobb, as well as African Americans’ romanticized notion of Africa. “People have negative and positive experiences there, and we had both.”
Yonges Island will be her most autobiographical work to date, looking at the universal issue of land rights and disenfranchisement through the prism of her family’s history. Voiceover interviews with family members will be stitched together with symbolic imagery. “My mother doesn’t remember her grandmother’s face, but has a few distinct memories of her, like the sound of her crinoline skirts rustling when she moved, catching a glimpse of her hightop boots when she hoisted herself up on a horse driven wagon, seeing her from a distance working in the field, and stopping to dance to the sound of the train when it passed,” Cobb says. So shots of rustling skirts and other evocative details will be combined with archival images of family and property.
“My grandfather would turn in his grave to see the house today,” Cobb says, “but he would be happy to see his descendent turning over stones to find our history.” Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)