Meet Li Sumpter, Artist in Residence for PACC, Part 1

HCAH Postbac fellow Kelly Jung speaks with Philadelphia Area Creative Collaboratives Artist in Residence Li Sumpter to discuss her current projects as well as her inspiration and interest in mythology.

Could you tell me more about the project you’re working on and what you will be doing specifically at Haverford?

Well, I came to this project with a few things already in the works. Some of the artwork you see here now is coming from the concept art and initial visualizations of the transmedia project Graffiti in the Grass. I received an art and change award from the Leeway Foundation in 2016 and in 2017 to develop this project in collaboration with illustrators, artists, designers, and makers from multiple disciplines. Some of my recent collaborators include illustrator Eric Battle, digital colorist Felix Serrano, maker Emily Bunker, graphic designer Carlye Kalmes, and architect/designer Nyasha Felder.  I see Graffiti in the Grass as a project that employs world-building as act of act of creative resistance and survival.


Can you describe world-building and how it has become a part of your work?

World-building is not a new concept. As a mythologist, I see world-building as a timeless art inherent to human nature and creativity. But, today, it’s finding a new place in socially engaged art and practice through speculative, science fiction, and cultural movements like afrofuturism. It considers what’s not working with the world and the limitations imposed on humanity or a particular group of people. World-building cultivates agency and ownership through acts of mythmaking and storytelling. It allows the marginalized and oppressed to be at the center of their own stories, to create new worlds and realities of our own design that eliminate certain issues and limitations.

So that’s what Graffiti in the Grass is to me: it’s an attempt to explore the future through speculative fiction and to possibly play a part in shaping the future of the city of Philadelphia and its residents. The story is set here, in Philly (my hometown), circa 2025. It’s the near future, not so far from now. It puts the survival of the city and all of humanity into focus. The story is driven by ecological crisis and forces us to ask difficult questions about how we live our lives and serve as stewards of the planet. The biggest question of all is: will we survive the current world we’ve created?


How do survival and science fiction find expression in your work, projects, and events?

A lot of my work also deals with emergency preparedness and looking at the art of survival, how we as humans are creative problem solvers. Sometimes, the problem is just surviving life and avoiding the everyday violence and death that are so much a part of 21st century existence. We are constantly faced with life-threatening situations that so many of us, unfortunately, are not truly prepared for. Like the current hurricane season that has impacted so many people across the country. It’s been eye-opening to see what can happen in the blink of an eyepeople left without power, without food and water. Myths have always been great teaching tools that can impart valuable information while engaging people in the epic drama of it all. As a scholar of apocalyptic mythology, I decided I wanted to use myth-making to create worlds that might challenge our ability to survive and challenge us to think about how we would act if we were presented with these survival scenarios. That’s what Graffiti in the Grass is doing: it’s trying to offer survival tips to readers through different scenarios we can explore and trouble-shoot collectively .


I read that when Graffiti in the Grass is distributed, you want the first priority to be given to young, black women?

I’m not sure I said exactly that, but yes! My story features a protagonist, Roxi Red Moon, who is a young woman of African and indigenous descent–so, sure! It would please me very much if young women of color were inspired by Roxi in some way or saw some of her in themselves. She is brilliant and creative, compassionate and fierce. She is a leader and a survivor. Media images that represent all that black women are and can be were rarely shown in the stories and movies that I grew up on. Of course there was Lt. Uhuru of Star Trek. Thank the stars for her! But, these figures were few and far between. So I’m happy to contribute a new character to the speculative universeone that portrays women of color in a positive and powerful light.


Where does your interest in science fiction and mythology come from?

I have always been into science fiction and fantasy. At an early age, my dad would take me to see Star Wars and other science-fiction movies when they came out. I remember going and watching these films and wanting to be a Jedi, wanting to be down with Luke Skywalker, thinking I was Princess Leia in my own way. The mythologies of these stories resonated so much with me that I borrowed them from the big screen and would incorporate them in my life. So many people do that! That’s why the mythology in pop culture has struck a chord with everyday folks, because they start to use that in their everyday language. It becomes a part of  their vernacular, and thus a part of their waking world. I’m a big fan of Octavia Butler, she’s a pillar of speculative fiction and afrofuturism, and her stories are so inventive and creative and empowering. The characters are always exploring the future in a way that has never been seen before. Parable of the Sower is probably one of my favorite works by Butler. I love stories like The Matrix as well, Interstellar, Inception–stories that deal with other dimensions of reality, and the blending of dream and real-life, and the thin line between them.

This interview is two parts; in the second part, Li speaks more the process of producing Graffiti in the Grass.