For its second edition, St Louis’s Counterpublic triennial is looking toward the future. With 30 commissions and a six-member curatorial ensemble, Counterpublic considers how a civic exhibition can avoid becoming a spectacle and instead support healing, repatriation and generational change. The ambitious triennial, which continues until 15 July, spans a six-mile stretch of Jefferson Avenue. Central themes include the history of displacement and erasure of Indigenous and Black communities in St Louis and the role of land as both a witness and potential conduit for regeneration.
“We didn't want the exhibition to simply reflect on history, or to point to other futures without reckoning with the past,” says James McAnally, who co-founded Counterpublic with Lee Broughton. “Instead, Counterpublic looks to the work of repair, repatriation and reparations as lenses to better understand how to individually and collectively intervene.” McAnally is one of this year’s curators alongside Allison Glenn, Risa Puleo, Katherine Simóne Reynolds, Diya Vij, and the collective New Red Order.
Positioning the exhibition along the central thoroughfare of Jefferson Avenue has enabled Counterpublic to span 13 different neighbourhoods. “Those neighbours are a primary audience; the exhibition is for them, first,” says McAnally. “The commissions are embedded in the regular rhythms of the city. They are there to be experienced and to expand what we know and how we understand St Louis.”
Most directly connected to the past, present and possible futures are the projects related to Sugarloaf Mound, the city’s oldest human-made structure and last remaining Indigenous mound. Its exact function is unknown, though similar mounds were used for burial purposes, as temples and as vantage points to send signals to other communities. Built between roughly 800 and 1450, Sugarloaf witnessed settler occupation and was eventually subdivided, partially leveled and built upon in the early 20th century. In 2009, Osage Nation—whose ancestors were displaced from St Louis—gained ownership of part of Sugarloaf, purchasing and removing a house on its top to preserve the land and build an interpretive center on an adjacent site. Two houses, however, still remain.
In 2021, McAnally and Puleo approached Osage Nation to discuss including Sugarloaf Mound in Counterpublic. “Part of that thinking opened up the question: should anything happen on Sugarloaf itself? That’s a question that only Osage Nation can answer,” says Puleo. “Public art occupies space. What forms could be employed that wouldn’t re-create an occupation of St Louis?”
Puleo invited artists with ancestral ties to the area to respond to Sugarloaf on adjacent land, thus avoiding occupying the mound itself. “To add anything to Sugarloaf would be to subject it to decoration,” she says. “No singular artistic statement could attend to the complexity of the larger history of dispossession and Native displacement—as well as the erasure of Native presence in Missouri and throughout the entire country—any better than the Mound itself.”
Included in Puleo’s projects is an installation by Osage artist Anita Fields and her son Nokosee that is a series of low platforms similar to those used today in Osage ceremonies. The platforms act as a homecoming and reminder of what the land might be used for were it under Osage ownership.
Also next to Sugarloaf are billboards by Anna Tsouhlarakis and New Red Order, both curated by New Red Order. Tsouhlarakis’ billboard reads, “WHEN YOU LISTEN THE LAND SPEAKS,” prompting visitors to consider the land’s Native ancestral stories. On the opposite side—facing the two remaining houses at the site—New Red Order’s billboard demands voluntary repatriation.
While the sites of Counterpublic are mostly public spaces, New Red Order is exhibiting a related video at the St Louis Art Museum. The work reflects on the greater history of Native displacement, implicating the museum building itself, which was originally created for the 1904 World's Fair and involved the destruction of several Mississippian mounds. The video is a call to action to decolonise and give back the land.
“Decolonisation, or the return of all land and life to Indigenous people, may seem impossible,” says New Red Order. “If it took 400 to 500 years and multiple efforts to dispossess Native people, how long will it take to reverse these processes? By foregrounding, promoting, and being involved in voluntary efforts to Give Back land, we can encourage others to embark on such efforts as well.” To this end, Counterpublic’s organisers are working to purchase and donate Sugarloaf Mound in full back to Osage Nation, including the two occupied homes.
The triennial’s repatriation plan reflects the larger goal of supporting new futures “as a way to metabolise the violence of the past”, says Vij, who curated projects in the former Mill Creek Valley, an area once home to a large Black community that was destroyed as part of an urban renewal initiative. Vij’s projects “focus on redistribution and regeneration, not as a way to offer a redemption narrative” but rather to consider the past and offer “material shifts and lessons for the future”, she says.
Included is a regenerative earthwork by Jordan Weber. Serving as a community gathering space and a rainwater garden, the earthwork purifies the soil and raises awareness about the importance of stormwater management systems in protecting land and people. Weber’s project reflects the civic focus of Counterpublic, whose organisers set out to ensure the exhibition’s presence in the city is not one of occupation or spectacle, but rather supports tangible, permanent change.
“When art is done right in public, it allows space to dream for more,” says McAnally. “As a longtime resident myself, it’s exciting to see art infiltrate the daily experience of the city. One of the best responses we have had from St Louisans is a desire for more: more public art, more programmes and experiences. It’s our role to create that space of anticipation and expectation for art in the everyday.”
- Counterpublic 2023, until 15 July, venues throughout St Louis, Missouri