Higher ground

Photo by Jennifer Colten, WPC.Section 10 [271.11], 1991 inkjet print, © and courtesy of the artist.

In St. Louis, nothing is sacred. Neighborhoods become stigmatized, neglected, leveled, and forgotten – the memories, like the residents, displaced forever.

However, there is no greater injustice than the desecration and displacement of the deceased. Their story is the subject of a new multimedia exhibit, “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery, Its People and Place,” running through August 26 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Blvd.

The story of Washington Park Cemetery is one of frustration and frequent upheaval. Photographer Jennifer Colton (Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University) first visited the cemetery during the early 1990s, when the cemetery was under assault by the forces of “progress.” Airport expansion and MetroLink construction displaced many graves. Colton’s images depict the careless abuse of a sacred historical resting place. Her 50 photographs artistically detail the surviving gravesites; the story they tell is jarring.

The impact of decades of urban sprawl is visible in the photographs. A highway cuts between the cemetery in one image; in another picture, a solitary chain link fence separates gravesites from a commercial development. Several headstones tumbled over, covered with weeds. Others sit just steps away from storefronts, reminding visitors to the exhibit that these unkempt surroundings reflect both the weakness of public policy, as well as neglect by Washington Park Cemetery’s caretakers.

One image stands out: a wide shot of a landscape that could easily be mistaken for an abandoned battlefield, with open graves visible like crater shells, filled with rainwater.

This graphic photograph provides a raw reminder. Such indifferent treatment would seldom be tolerated within a white cemetery. Personally, the visceral impact of this exhibit angered me as I neared the final images of Colton’s exhibit, where a colored photograph depicts a pristine hillside and a beautiful white cement transit line curving in the background – this landscape was once home to hundreds of gravesites.

"The history of Washington Park Cemetery is a microcosm of events, a complicated tangle of social justice, racial politics and imbalance of power," Jennifer Colton said.

The exhibit is more than Colton’s striking photographs. Oral histories created by Denise Ward Brown, professor and filmmaker at the Sam Fox School, provide a narrative voice to the experience. Brown’s videos include interviews with the current cemetery owner and with volunteers. Music from Asbury United Methodist Church weaves beautifully through the gallery, adding an extra layer of emotion to the exhibit.

Moreover, the gallery features an interesting audio-visual presentation by Dail Chambers, founder of the Yeyo Arts Collective. Chambers, whose grandmother is buried in Washington Park Cemetery, narrates her journey to locate her grandmother’s gravesite and to deal with the reality of the indifference and disrespect that the cemetery reflects.

Much is being discussed around the topic of displacement in St. Louis. It is a sordid and wicked history. With many projects being prepared across St. Louis on displacement, this exhibit is a fitting and powerful first chapter.

For more information, visit http://www.thesheldon.org/current-exhibits.php.

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