Photographer Matt Rahner On The Current Exhibit At The Griot Museum Of Black History In St. Louis

How do you photograph the nature of loss?

The Griot Museum of Black History’s current exhibition, “Eminent Domain/Displaced,” showcases photographs, salvaged materials, interviews and archival objects that tell the stories of three Kansas City and St. Louis neighborhoods seized and destroyed for government use under the law of eminent domain. A poignant collaborative installment by artist Matt Rahner and Griot Museum director Lois Conley, the exhibit captures the panic of boarded windows and bulldozed homes that comes when a neighborhood is seized and the emotional impact it has on residents.

We spoke with featured artist and co-curator Matt Rahner about the origins of the exhibit, the long-term impacts of eminent domain, and the ways in which art and activism intersect. “Eminent Domain/Displaced” will be on display through Nov. 20, 2017.

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Photo by Ben Hoste

What drew you to the project of photographing the Wendell-Phillips neighborhood in Kansas City?
In August of 2012, I was in Kansas City visiting family and I read an article in the Pitch Weekly. The article, titled “Blight Flight” by Matt Pearce, detailed the city’s plan to buy out the residents and demolish the homes in the four-block area of the Wendell-Phillips neighborhood in east Kansas City. After reading the article I was left with more questions than answers and decided to investigate further on my own. I had an interest in the nature of eminent domain, because my grandfather had lost a building he owned in Kansas City back in the 1960’s, which was devastating for him at the time.

My interest in the impact of eminent domain was personally motivated, and I wanted to gain a clearer sense of the experience of residents as they were subjected to this radical use of power by the government. In the Pitch article, Ameena Powell was interviewed about her experience as a resident. Ameena is one of the few residents who put up a sustained fight against the city. I contacted Ameena through her website that she had set up to raise awareness about the proceedings. We met at her house in the neighborhood and she introduced me to her neighbors and told me her story of the neighborhood.

You spent eighteen months photographing Wendell-Phillips residents, ultimately documenting the government seizure and demolition of their homes. What were those months like for the residents and homeowners of Wendell-Phillips?
The first few months of documenting, I met as many residents as I could before they moved away from the neighborhood. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to meet everyone, because I started the project about halfway through the process (it initially began in 2011). But I was able to meet a fair number of residents in the final months of the neighborhood. Their experiences ranged from frustration to anger, resentment and beyond. An older resident I met in the neighborhood began experiencing severe anxiety and had to seek medical care to get help treating her symptoms. A man in his sixties, who had lived in his house since he was three years old, told me how betrayed and angry he felt. He was one of the last to leave the neighborhood and his home.

One of the most telling reactions I found, I was actually able to document in a photograph. Inside one of the homes I found a note scrawled in the back of a closet that read, “Took my home but not my heart.” This note was representative of how most residents felt. They were saddened, angered and felt betrayed—but they were also resilient and held on to their good memories of the neighborhood.

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What were those eighteen months like for you?
My experience as an outsider was much different than that of the residents. I went in with the foreknowledge that this place would soon no longer exist. All the residents would move out, the homes would become vacant and eventually they would be demolished and hauled away. My goal was to get a sense of the place while it was still viable, so I had a sense of urgency. I spoke with and interviewed residents, I photographed and studied the visual characteristics of the neighborhood’s homes and architecture, and I attempted to understand the past through research on the area. However, the changes came faster than I expected, and although I had anticipated it, I was surprised every time I went back because something had changed. A neighbor had moved out, a house had burned down (which happened numerous times), a house had been gutted by scrappers, or a home that I’d previously been in with residents had been demolished.

The neighborhood went from viable and thriving to vacant and empty in the course of a year’s time. I experienced all four seasons in the neighborhood, which I am grateful for. The place was lush and green in the summer, and in the winter it was still and quiet. I was able to feel the place on a deeper level than if I had only visited once or twice. It became a study of a place in flux, and I was grateful that I was able to document its changes. The neighborhood as it was in August 2012 is no longer recognizable. Every structure is gone, every tree torn down, every sidewalk and street razed over. My role as a documentarian was to compile as many stories and compelling photographs as I could. However, over the course of the making the work, I was definitely affected emotionally. It was hard to see a historic neighborhood torn apart and the lives of its residents altered in such a dramatic way.

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Photo by Matt Rahner

In addition to your photographs, the exhibit also shows archived objects from the demolished homes. We keep archives for the sake of record, but also for posterity—for what history can tell us about our present and our future. I wonder if there’s a message for posterity you’d like viewers to come away with after seeing the exhibition?
I was definitely thinking about the archival impulse to record and tell the story of Wendell-Phillips. The objects became really important in the exhibition, because the photographs of the people, homes and landscapes of Wendell-Phillips didn’t feel like they told the full story. In the exhibition, the objects add a visceral experience of the neighborhood. This incomplete archive of the neighborhood includes photographs, letters, ephemera, bricks and children’s toys, and are in dialogue with the photographs. My hope is that the viewers of the installation make connections between the objects and the photographs and feel a more personal connection to the neighborhood. We’ve become somewhat desensitized to photography, because it is everywhere, all the time, and adding the objects became a way to activate the photos in a new way. Plus, I didn’t want to install the work in the “white-cube” of the gallery. It felt too sanitized for a show like “Eminent Domain,” which is very personal and emotional. I recreated wallpaper I found in one of the homes and installed that in the gallery, so that it began to feel more like you were in a resident’s home than a gallery space.

I wanted to recreate my experience of the neighborhood for my viewers, especially since the prevailing attitude in the media towards the neighborhood was that it was blighted and dangerous. That was not my experience. My experience, and the reality, was the other narrative that isn’t told in the media, that is largely ignored when cases of eminent domain happen in our cities. The real narrative is that residents had homes that felt safe and comforting. They were actively taking care of [the houses] and were invested in their neighborhood. According to St. Louis University School of Law Professor Patricia H. Lee, blight is a metaphor and a false narrative that leads to eminent domain, which leads to displacement.

midwest photographer matt rahner eminent domain st louis alive magazine

Photo by Matt Rahner

In what ways do art and activism intersect for you? 
I think art can aid activism by opening up dialogues with and between diverse groups of people. My project wasn’t able to save the Wendell-Phillips neighborhood, but through exhibiting it, the press and the talks I’ve given, [the project] has been able to raise awareness of some of the systemic problems in Kansas City’s history and governing practices. I believe that artists are more often than not in touch with what the culture is going through at the time, and are able to make work that creates avenues for important discussions to take place. It is definitely not the responsibility of every artist, but if an artist has the inclination to do so, they can create meaningful work that responds to, and is in dialogue with, the challenging issues facing their contemporary society, which may lead to more activism and dialogue. That’s what leads to change.

“Eminent Domain” is exhibited together with Griot Museum director Lois Conley’s “Displaced.” How did this collaborative exhibit come about, and in what ways is your work in conversation with hers?
Lois Conley contacted me after she heard about my work from her friend Robert Powell, who owns the Portfolio Gallery in St. Louis. It just so happens that Robert is Ameena’s uncle, and Ameena had told Robert about the show. So, it came full circle, but the interesting thing is that Lois was herself displaced after the neighborhood in St. Louis once known as Mill Creek was taken by eminent domain for redevelopment in the late 1950’s. And, on top of that, the Griot Museum sits a street north of the St. Louis Place neighborhood, which was taken by eminent domain for the NGA West site. You can actually see the NGA fence right across the street if you are standing on the steps of the Griot looking south. So, it was a perfect fit, both because of timing and because of Lois’ experiences with eminent domain.

Her contribution to “Eminent Domain/Displaced” is a fantastic look at the Mill Creek neighborhood and the NGA footprint. She collected items from the sites, which are displayed in the exhibit. She also found great archive materials, including old photographs, newspapers and maps. Lois did research into the neighborhoods, so there are wonderful didactics with photographs detailing the history of these areas. I really connected with the quotes of displaced residents that she had printed out and displayed. My addition to “Displaced” is photographs of the NGA site. I was able to walk around the former neighborhood after the houses were torn down but before construction began. So, my photographs are of empty streets and views of St. Louis from the other side of the fence. Our collaboration and work was a natural fit. Both of our shows talk about what has been lost through eminent domain and aim to reclaim the narrative surrounding these neighborhoods from the perspective of those who have been displaced.

Do you keep in touch with the people you photographed for “Eminent Domain”? Do you know where they’ve ended up post-demolition?
Yes, I have [kept in touch] with a few of the families and residents. In fact, Ameena Powell, who was my first contact in the neighborhood, has become a close friend. She was, and is, a realtor, and she helped my wife and I buy our first home. Ameena has also become a collaborator on the project; we have done radio and newspaper interviews together, and she was a part of the programming at The Griot this past Saturday. I have followed up with many of the residents and some are doing well. A few of the elderly residents have passed away after moving, some as soon as six months after being displaced. So, it was hard on people, but the residents I met and have stayed in contact with have fond memories of Wendell-Phillips.

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