My city has also not been particularly adept at acknowledging its sins, past or present, let alone attempting to atone for them.
By Eileen G’Sell
“People who live by rivers dream they are immortal.” ~ Audre Lorde, “St. Louis a City Out of Time,” 1971
As the sun set over the Fulda river on Juneteenth, 2022, the Philadelphia-based practice Black Quantum Futurism performed before a dazzled crowd in Kassel, Germany. Two of hundreds of contributors to documenta 15, Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips stood on “The Clepsydra Stage” (2022), devised of two floating circular clocks that move with the river current, their voices ricocheting off the banks in anthemic lyricism. “To submerge the Master’s clock,” Ayewa intoned, “is a revolutionary act within a revolutionary act of escape.” I was in the enviable, if lonely, position of visiting Kassel for the first time by myself, a peripatetic, porous person roving around the Hessian town in search of meaning—or art. Whichever came first.
Jump forward a year and almost five thousand miles away, and the Afrofuturist duo sets the clock to CDT in my hometown. Part of the second installment of St. Louis’s Counterpublic triennial, SLOWER-THAN-LIGHT SHRINE: IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD glints from a grassy lot a block west of Jefferson Ave. Shaped in the likeness of a Kongo cosmogram, a core symbol in Bakongo spirituality, the shrine is assembled out of wrought-iron gates, archways, and lattices salvaged from demolished homes in the area. Afro picks, conk shells, broken glass, and skeleton keys adorn the metal structure; mirrors and antique time pieces affixed to its layered surfaces reflect the summer sun, snagging the eye of passersby in this quiet urban enclave. While the supplemental text explains that the piece is meant to pay tribute to “liberation seekers who traversed the Underground Railroad in St. Louis, using the caves beneath the city on their path,” the monument feels more an homage to the dignity of the Black St. Louis community through decades of systematic displacement and disenfranchisement.
SLOWER-THAN-LIGHT SHRINE is but one of twenty-five sites on view till July 15th, most on view in public space, with internationally renowned contributors like Torkwase Dyson, David Adjaye, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, alongside regionally notable artists like Damon Davis, Yvonne Osei, and Katherine Simóne Reynolds. Whereas Counterpublic 2019 seemed to most overtly prioritize the vantage of curator and co-founder James McAnally, in this year’s iteration, a diverse array of curators, artists, and St. Louis communities lead the way. Critically, of the thirty artists included, almost all are of Black or indigenous descent—and some, like Davis, were raised in poverty and have firsthand knowledge of the structural violence of St. Louis’s history of racial segregation. Also distinct from 2019, several of the works onsite—like Adjaye’s public earthen sculpture, Asaase III, adjoining the Griot Museum of Black History—are permanent.
Like the recent documenta—from its cadmium yellow signage to its advised engagement with public space—of which the most compelling works, in my view, unsettled their nondescript settings, the most powerful parts of Counterpublic 2023 fruitfully disrupt Jefferson Avenue, the major north-south thoroughfare that has served as a border between the city’s downtown center and the westward migration (or forced expulsion) of its citizens. While nearby districts like South Grand and Washington Ave are mostly gentrified, Jefferson itself is not; outside adjoining neighborhoods like Lafayette Square, Benton Park, and the Cherokee Arts District, it is pocked with civic neglect. I have driven it numberless times and never walked the grounds of most of the installations on view at Counterpublic. Walking north and south this summer, I discovered—strike that, encountered—spaces that I had not known existed. I was hot. I was sweaty. And more crucially, I was humbled.
Unlike documenta, most Counterpublic installations were created by individual artists, rather than collectives, though the exhibition overall retains a collaborative feel built from the efforts of the four curators—New York’s Diya Vij, Chicago’s Allison Glenn and Risa Puleo, and the indigenous group New Red Order—who joined local curators and communities in the process of conceptualizing and realizing the event. In the north hub off Jefferson, Torkwase Dyson’s immersive architectural and sonic installation Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin) stands in the south of St. Louis Place Park. Open to all 24/7, the simultaneously sun-dappled and cavernous space proves both a perfect spot for a picnic or pensive contemplation. Stepping up into a circular door to the west, the structure resembles a minimalist portal to another world. And it is. As Joplin’s ragtime tunes float from the speakers lining the inner walls, the venerable trees, houses, and churches in the vicinity throb with its syncopations. We are reminded of not only Joplin, but so many Black creatives for whom the city was once home—Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, and Tina Turner among them.
Heading south on Jefferson toward the southwest entrance of CITYPARK, the soccer stadium at Jefferson and Market opened in 2022, an imposing cluster of eight granite sculptures tower over both the curious and oblivious. Named for the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood in which twenty thousand Black St. Louisans resided in the first half of the twentieth century, and on which the stadium now stands, Damon Davis’s Pillars of the Valley calls attention to the mass erasure and displacement conducted in the name of “urban renewal.” Next to the pillars, contextualizing the larger history of the space, a vast stone map reveals how massive the area once was—some 450 acres—and how few of its former sites still remain. Part of the Great Rivers Greenway Brickline Project that, upon completion in 2030, will join ten miles of trails connecting fourteen predominantly Black St. Louis neighborhoods, Pillars of the Valley will eventually stretch a mile long to mark the boundary of the Mill Creek Valley district. “It was a joy,” reads one quote from a former Mill Creek resident, engraved on a pillar’s surface. “I grew up joyfully.”
A few blocks south, Jefferson Avenue Bridge extends a half mile over an industrial terrain of train tracks and forklifts, the median strip and ends of the bridge under serious construction. When I arrived on foot after parking my car at the nearby QuikTrip, a light rain had just cleared; the sky was electric with loitering clouds, the setting sun streaked with peach. Strewn colorfully across the half mile of pavement, Yvonne Osei’s While You’re Still Here confronts the viewer with verdant vinyl florals, each end of the bridge depicting a female worker in the area, her face and body bedecked in blooms. Below a splash of sunflowers peeking through a crack in the concrete lie a discarded pack of Newports, a bag of cheddar puffs, and a sodden baby diaper. Together, they seemed to suggest that, even in what seems a desolate space, new life grows. Someone was here.
As a city of erstwhile national prominence (the national capital almost moved here in 1869), St. Louis has long been understood as a metonym for urban decline. My city has also not been particularly adept at acknowledging its sins, past or present, let alone attempting to atone for them. Counterpublic cannot redress centuries of racism, fear, and ignorance, but it can—and does—at least bring to (sometimes bitter, often unflattering) light the scars that the city’s Black, brown, and indigenous communities have endured, along with the healing that need take place in time, over time, if we are to share a future. Next to the car wash on 2311 Jefferson another half mile south, Simiya Sudduth’s vibrant Justice mural reimagines the tarot card as a red-gowned woman holding two bolls of cotton. Are we in the South? one might ask, facing the signature red brick that characterizes most of the city’s residential buildings. Are we ever.
Growing up in St. Louis in the 80s and 90—eldest daughter of a letter carrier and a stay-at-home mom, both white and both college educated, if economically lower income—I saw myself as the natural heir to a can-do, pioneering spirit epitomized by the Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen’s modernist flex completed in 1965, when my father was eleven years old. My school teachers called us “Midwestern,” never Southern, and with the lack of conspicuous twang in their timbre, I never questioned it. Our school books taught us of the Missouri Compromise and Dred Scott decision, but never of vicious red-lining policies, the neglect and ultimate collapse of Pruitt-Igoe, or the “Sundown Towns,” like Ferguson, in which Black people could not be safe in public if the sun had set. Everything southern about us could be conveniently abstracted, distanced. Counterpublic does the opposite.
Continuing south on Jefferson Ave, after passing the street I lived in as a child (Miami, which, as a toddler, I called “your Ami,” misconstruing the word’s syntax), and then street after street named for an Indian nation (Chippewa, Keokuk, Osage…), Counterpublic’s southern-most tip, Sugarloaf Mound, is honored for what it is: the oldest human-made structure in St. Louis and the last intact Native American mound in a city that was once called “Mound City.” Nestled beside a tiny white house in which, I learned during the press tour a tiny white lady with a tiny white dog has lived all her life, the sacred burial mound is bordered by chain-link fence; no one would know it was there unless told in advance. Above Sugarloaf, a billboard designed by New Red Order announces, “This Billboard Is on Sacred Land”; its flipside, by Anna Tsouhlarakis, reads, “When You Listen, the Land Speaks.” Below, Anita and Nokosee Fields’s forty colorful wooden platforms dot the grass, designed in accordance with Osage symbolism. “What does a native future look like?” a yellow sign asks from a telephone pole. And how can we know without knowing the past?
Two blocks east of Jefferson, rising two hundred feet above 20th St, at the edge of where Mill Creek Valley once pulsed with life, The St. Louis Wheel at Union Station is perhaps the most unconventional space for productive disruption: a selection of the gondolas features Sky is the Only Roof, a sound installation from Steffani Jemison made in collaboration with Jackie and Glen “Papa” Wright. As the giant Ferris wheel levitates above the city—illustrious downtown to the east, light industrial to the west—the 1954 erasure of this once thriving Black community is more potently visible than on the ground. To the east: historic edifices, parks, and landmarks bear the patina of having survived for decades, if not centuries. They have personality, a soul. To the west: ghosts of what, as Jemison recites between the ting of a triangle and the tremble of cymbals, were once beloved theatres, hotels, cafes, and clubs, all of which are now endless parking lots or anonymous warehouses. Percussion explodes after Jemison’s sobering enumeration; birdsong flits thereafter.
“Our City Our Spirit” declares the banner draping the side of the new professional soccer field. No doubt spirits dwell here. But are we as a city ready to claim them?
Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic with recent contributions to The Baffler, Fence, Oversou