Torkwase Dyson's Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin), an architectural and sonic installation, is part of Counterpublic 2023.

Counterpublic Weaves Contemporary Art into St. Louis Life

Wednesday April 12, 2023

By Rachel Huffman

For three months every three years, Counterpublic weaves contemporary art into St. Louis life. As one of the world’s largest public art platforms, Counterpublic brings 30 artist commissions to public parks, community gathering spaces, historic homes, forward-looking museums and other cultural institutions around the city.

The goal is to reimagine civic infrastructures towards generational change. Each commission aims to engage St. Louis’ complex past, acknowledge its charged present and imagine its possible futures.

The second edition of Counterpublic will run from April 15 to July 15.

Part of Counterpublic 2023, Anna Tsouhlarakis' multi-media artwork features a billboard and public digital displays throughout St. Louis.
The Native Guide Project: STL by Anna Tsouhlarakis

“Counterpublic was inspired by the incredible arts and culture scene in St. Louis,” James McAnally, artistic and executive director of Counterpublic, says. “We recognized the incredible breadth of work on view in area museums and galleries, and we saw an opportunity to bring that into public space in a more comprehensive and dynamic way.

“We want to create a moment when the nation looks to St. Louis as a hub of artistic activity – which it already is,” he continues. “Counterpublic aims to connect the myriad cultural assets in St. Louis and celebrate what’s happening here.”

During the activation, free art installations, live performances, film screenings, walking tours, conversations and parties will animate the six miles of Jefferson Ave. The festival will also include active education, research, residencies, publications and partner exhibitions.

Pillars of the Valley is a permanent public sculpture outside of CITYPARK.
Pillars of the Valley by Damon Davis

Currently, Counterpublic has three anchor sites: CITYPARK stadium, Sugarloaf Mound and The Griot Museum of Black History.

In collaboration with St. Louis CITY SC, Great Rivers Greenway, Harris-Stowe State University and the city of St. Louis, Counterpublic has realized a permanent public art exhibit that recognizes and honors the 20,000 predominantly Black residents of the once-thriving Mill Creek Valley neighborhood who were displaced in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s. Of the 5,000 homes, schools, churches and businesses in the neighborhood, the Harris-Stowe State University campus is the only surviving building.

Located in the southwest plaza of CITYPARK, where St. Louis CITY SC plays, Pillars of the Valley is the vision of nationally acclaimed post-disciplinary artist and East St. Louis native Damon Davis. The powerful work aims to build connections and drive discussions around a more inclusive future for all. The tribute also includes landscaping matching the plot lines of the buildings that once stood in the same spot and plaques displaying the addresses of the former homes. Pillars of the Valley is part of a larger installation along a planned one-mile stretch of the Brickline Greenway.

“It has been a fascinating journey to rediscover the story of Mill Creek Valley … and consider how art can play a role in commemorating the neighborhood,” Lee Broughton, chief brand architect of St. Louis CITY SC, says. “For CITY SC, like Counterpublic, we want to become a platform that brings different parts together to create a greater whole.”

St. Louis CITY SC strives to be more than a soccer team. By establishing a permanent exhibit like Pillars of the Valley, the club invites fans to learn about Mill Creek Valley as part of the overall experience.

During the Counterpublic activation from April 15 to July 15, the public can see other projects relating to Mill Creek Valley at St. Louis Union Station, Memorial Plaza and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD).

Counterpublic hopes to preserve Sugarloaf Mound and return it to the Osage Nation.
Sugarloaf Mound

Counterpublic is also working with the Osage Nation to activate the site of Sugarloaf Mound. “We want to bring artist commissions to the site,” McAnally says, “but beyond that, we want to support the effort to preserve the mound and return it to the Osage Nation.”

Counterpublic respectfully acknowledges that we are on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Osage, Missouria and Illini people, who have stewarded the land for generations. On its website, Counterpublic asks us to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration and settlement that bring us to this community today and the ways in which we might work to care for and repair these legacies in the present.

The Griot Museum of Black History is a permanent site of Counterpublic.
Asaase III by David Adjaye

The third permanent site is The Griot Museum of Black History. Located in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, the museum reveals the broad scope of Black history and culture. Its mission is to collect, preserve, interpret and share the stories of Black people, highlighting their regional connection to American history and their contributions to the country’s development. The core galleries of The Griot Museum include artifacts, memorabilia and life-size wax figures. While you’re here, journey inside to “meet” Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, James Milton Turner, Miles Davis and more historical figures with ties to St. Louis.

“We wanted to celebrate what The Griot Museum has been doing for more than 25 years, while spotlighting a really ambitious project,” McAnally says. “So, we’ve commissioned and donated the first permanent public artwork by notable architect David Adjaye, who designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. We’re proud that it’s going to be built on-site [during this year’s festival] and then donated to the museum in full.”

Asaase III, the third translation of an ongoing series of earthen sculptures by Adjaye, was borne from his ongoing reflections on the origins of Black architecture and its relationship to the earth. With roots in indigenous civilizations around the world, Asaase III takes inspiration from historic works of West African architecture such as the Tiébélé royal complex in Burkina Faso and the walled city of Agadez in Niger. Each of the six fragments is composed of rammed earth sourced locally.

As both a social and terrestrial sculpture, Asaase III orchestrates a series of outdoor rooms for both informal and formal programming.

Defensive Landscape by Jordan Weber is a site-specific regenerative earthwork.
Defensive Landscape by Jordan Weber

Working in response to community needs, Counterpublic brings relevant artworks to public spaces in many of the city’s neighborhoods. “We spent a year hosting monthly community listening sessions,” McAnally says. “In terms of civic exhibitions, the process is unique; we wanted to create a new model that’s right for St. Louis. The city knows what it needs, and we want to bolster and accelerate that. I think that starts with listening.”

Counterpublic will launch its second edition on April 15 with tours, talks and performances at The Griot Museum of Black History and St. Louis Place Park as well as a grand opening celebration with art, music, food and drinks at CITYPARK.

“For opening weekend, Mendi and Keith Obadike are working with Mvstermind and 12 other producers to create a mixed tape that will play during a 50-car procession through the St. Louis Place neighborhood beginning at 2 p.m. on April 15,” McAnally says. “The incredible event will bring the community together, while pushing the boundaries of what you might expect public art to look like.”

Celebrated artist Torkwase Dyson has created an immersive architectural and sonic installation, Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin), in St. Louis Place Park, as well. Dyson works across mediums to explore the continuity between ecology, infrastructure and architecture, which is deeply rooted in the spatial strategies of Black and Indigenous peoples across the world as foundations of invention towards livable worlds.

In her installation for Counterpublic, Dyson draws inspiration from the legacy of Scott Joplin and ragtime music, a syncopated blend of classical piano and African polyrhythms with mathematical precision evolved in response to the oppressive conditions of minstrel shows and credited as the first truly “American” musical form.

“We expect the work to be a crowd-pleaser,” McAnally says. “Dyson has a parallel show at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, which we encourage you to check out, too.”

During the three-month festival, everything that you’ll experience has been concocted by artists for St. Louis specifically. “The artworks have been created in response to St. Louis,” McAnally says. “You can’t experience [Counterpublic] anywhere else in the world. It’s a unique moment to see public art in unexpected spaces.”

With the addition of artist talks, musical performances, film screenings, walking tours and more, every day of the activation will be different, and every experience is free and open to the public. Whether you’re a lifelong resident or a first-time visitor, Counterpublic offers the opportunity to experience St. Louis in a new and exciting way.

In Cannupa Hanska Luger's artwork, an image of Midéegaadi (buffalo in the Hidatsa language) is overlaid with text that reads "We Survive You."
Future Ancestral Technologies: Roaming by Cannupa Hanska Luger

“We use the phrase ‘reimagining civic infrastructures towards generational change’ a lot, and that’s a mouthful,” McAnally says. “At the end of the day, we want to commission art that responds specifically to St. Louis as well as the pressing issues facing the region to connect art and social change.”

“The late Maya Angelou, who was born in St. Louis, said, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,’” Broughton adds. “We refer to that quote because storytelling is the essence of Counterpublic. For three months every three years, we want to bring people from around the world to St. Louis – an epicenter of arts and culture – to experience these commissions, but we also want to be a storytelling platform for stories that we’ve either forgotten or ignored. There’s something very ambitious and very powerful about what Counterpublic represents, and 2023 is really the first installment of how we plan to proceed.”

Counterpublic is building a dynamic model that other cities are eager to replicate. “Our arts and culture scene, including Counterpublic, should be a point of pride for St. Louis,” McAnally says. “In terms of the arts, we can compete with any city in the country, and Counterpublic is an opportunity to celebrate what we have here.”

Art is uniquely suited to expand social, political and civic horizons, bringing people together in harmony while grappling with today’s complex issues. Through its triennial festival, Counterpublic aims to not only spread art across St. Louis, engaging people near and far in conversations on the role of contemporary art, but also create meaningful connections and make lasting impacts in the community.