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Massive public art exhibition will highlight historical injustices in St. Louis

07_Torkwase Dyson Bird and Lava Rendering Copy of 02_front-close-up.jpeg
Counterpublic 2023
Artist Torkwase Dyson's installation "Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin)," shown in a rendering, will sit near the site of the Rosebud Bar, where Joplin pioneered ragtime.

A six-mile stretch of Jefferson Avenue will be transformed next month by “Counterpublic,” a multimillion-dollar exhibition of public art that organizers hope will help spur lasting corrections to historical injustices in St. Louis.

The three-month exhibition will include 30 pieces, including large-scale sculpture, performances and films that will screen for free in public. The works will explore the history of neighborhoods where they’re placed.

Curators and artists said they aim to acknowledge past injustices with an eye on making lasting change.

“It’s about looking to the future through a lens of repair. Any kind of envisioning of a future for this region is rooted in really accounting for and making right what has happened here over its history,” said co-founder and Artistic Director James McAnally.

This is the second iteration of “Counterpublic,” a triennial exhibition that leaders of the Luminary first organized in 2020. McAnally, who also co-founded the Luminary on Cherokee Street, declined to divulge the exhibition budget but said it required several million dollars. The organization behind it is a nonprofit group, funded by grants and donations.

Curators for Counterpublic 2023 are Allison Glenn, Diya Vij, Katherine Simóne Reynolds, Risa Puleo and New Red Order, a collective of Native filmmakers. The curators identified three tangible goals for the exhibition: helping return control of Sugarloaf Mound to the Osage Nation, memorializing Mill Creek Valley and growing the capacity of the Griot Museum of Black History.

Early in the planning process, writer Cheeraz Gormon spoke with 800 people who live or work along the route the exhibition will trace, learning about concerns they’d like the artwork to address.

Vij commissioned Jordan Weber to create a large-scale sculptural installation that responds to the history of environmental racism in St. Louis. It will sit near the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District headquarters before moving to a permanent home in College Hill, which organizers say is the only St. Louis neighborhood without a public park and has experienced years of toxic flooding.

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Counterpublic 2023
Jordan Weber's large-scale installation, shown in prototype form, will sit near the city's sewer district headquarters and later move to College Hill, which organizers say is the only St. Louis neighborhood without a public park.

Puleo recruited Anita Fields, a member of the Osage Nation, to build 40 ceremonial platforms around Sugarloaf Mound, the last remaining Native mound in St. Louis. Her work will be accompanied by a sound installation created by her son, Nokosee Fields, that recognizes the ancient history of human activity at the site.

Architect David Adjaye’s contribution, his first piece of public art, will sit adjacent to the Griot. Adjaye will construct a monumental earthwork over the three months of “Counterpublic,” using techniques from his native Ghana. The exhibition also will sponsor a two-year fellowship at the museum for conservators of color. Glenn commissioned the piece by Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

While the exhibition is deeply rooted in St. Louis history, its organizers said its scope and ambition could attract national attention.

“What if every three years, for three months, ‘Counterpublic’ helps make St. Louis an epicenter of art and culture in America? Really, there is not a model like this anywhere else in the States,” said co-founder Lee Broughton. “That is the real ambition and the real opportunity of ‘Counterpublic.’ It has the opportunity to speak to America.”

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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