Death is often perceived to be a great leveler, but this is a comforting distortion of the truth. Beneath the grass of Wadsley Church cemetery in north Sheffield lie 2,500 people who died at the South Yorkshire Asylum (later West Riding Asylum and then Wadsley Mental Hospital) between 1872 and 1948. Currently, there is scant evidence of this mass grave: a low stone plaque erected just inside the boundary wall, and a few flat stones placed by relatives of some of the deceased. This is a chapter in local history that has, as yet, gone unmarked.
The artworks A Visual Theory of the Soul, exhibited on this website, are part of Soil and Soul, an ongoing knowledge exchange project that responds to this history. The work brings together researchers Dr Julia Banwell, Dr Lizzie Craig-Atkins and Dr Julian Dobson with artist Helen Blejerman for an exploration of presence and absence, death, life, space, and the environment. Bringing together creative practice and expertise in human osteology, death studies and placemaking, Soil and Soul aims to connect with highly topical discourses around mental health and marginality and support a renewed relationship between local community and the cemetery as an urban green space. The project team contributed to ‘Post-traumatic Landscapes: a two-day cross-sector symposium’ organised by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield that took place in July.
Developed partly through dialogue with Dr Banwell and visits to Wadlsey cemetery, Helen’s artworks are the first iteration of Soil and Soul. In the autumn, they will be photographed in situ at the cemetery, as part of her offer of a ‘dignified goodbye’ to the ‘pauper souls’ that lie beneath. If Covid-19 permits, the photographs will then be exhibited in Sheffield. In November, audiences will be invited to download an interactive experience about the project as part of Being Human festival. To keep up with these and further iterations of the project, please follow AHKE Twitter.
The project is funded by Arts and Humanities Knowledge Exchange at the University of Sheffield.