No one place more completely embodies the American experience than St. Louis, smack dab in the middle of the country on the banks of the nation’s most important historic transportation route, the Mississippi River.
It has been at turns frontier, Western outpost and urban center. It is where the South, the Midwest and the West meet.
Centuries before any of those, the area was the site of a cosmopolitan Indigenous community, a hub of continental trade and culture. But America’s westward expansion also started here. Louis and Clark went up the Missouri River at the confluence with the Mississippi, an adventure that would ultimately result in the attempted genocide of Native people and wholesale theft of Native land.
The Gateway Arch, the country’s tallest and second most recognizable monument after the Statue of Liberty, memorializes the city’s role in western expansion, and, simultaneously, the madness and cruelty of Manifest Destiny.
In 1857, the Dred Scott case, in which the United States Supreme Court ultimately upheld the legality of slavery, began here. Missouri was a slave state that never seceded from the Union. Find a better example of America’s split personality than that contradiction.
Little remembered today, an effort in the late 1800s sought to move the nation’s capital from Washington D.C. to St. Louis at a time when it was the fourth largest city in the country and a major cultural, transportation and economic hub.
St. Louis is renowned for beer–Budweiser’s hometown–and baseball–America’s pastime–and Black Lives Matter–the movement took over St. Louis and centered the nation’s gaze on the suburb of Ferguson where social upheaval followed the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by police in 2014.
St. Louis represents America and America is represented in St. Louis more thoroughly than anywhere else.
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
Counterpublic 2023, a public triennial of contemporary art locally rooted while international in ambition, runs with the St. Louis as America metaphor, concentrating these vast histories along a six-mile section of Jefferson Avenue, so named for America’s third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, enlightened, slave holder, rapist, contractor of Lewis and Clark to head west.
“Jefferson Avenue runs north and south through the city; like many Rust Belt cities, St. Louis has been redlined and segregated in various ways along a north south axis, (and) Jefferson runs the full length of the city,” Counterpublic Executive Director and Artistic Director James McAnally told Forbes.com. “So if you start at the outset of the exhibition and move through these 30 projects, in a sense, you traverse the entire length of St. Louis.”
And America in many ways.
The event uses three significant anchor points around which to center the presentation.
“The southern terminus is at a place called Sugarloaf Mound,” McAnally explains. “St. Louis is known as mound city historically, and (Sugarloaf Mound) is the last intact Native mound in the city. It has been preserved almost by accident.”
While construction has occurred on the mound, it has survived where all other mounds here have not.
The exhibition continues through the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood west of downtown and the Arch. The once-vibrant neighborhood was home to over 20,000 residents, 800 businesses, and 40 houses of worship before city officials declared that the 450 acres would be demolished in the name of “urban renewal.” The intentional destruction of thriving Black communities across America in to run interstate highways through them occurred in nearly every major city in the country during the 1950s and 60s.
“Finally, the northern terminus of Jefferson hits a place called St. Louis Avenue where there are a number of Black cultural institutions, notably the Griot Museum of Black History and the Vashon Museum,” McAnally said. “Those sites tell a story of St. Louis’s long history. (St. Louis) has been a central focal point in what is now America and Jefferson just happened to be touching upon those multiple histories.”
To best experience Counterpublic, begin at one of these three hubs. Each location is free and open to the public, offering exhibition guides and materials with free parking and bathroom facilities along with on-site event staff to discuss the projects and inform your visit.
The Griot Museum
2505 St Louis Ave, St. Louis 63106
Open Wednesday-Saturday 10AM-5PM
2100 Market St, St. Louis 63103
Open Monday-Friday: 10AM-6PM
Saturday 11AM-6PM, + Sunday 11AM-5PM
2701 Cherokee St, St. Louis 63118
Open Wednesday-Saturday 11AM-6PM
You are on Native Land
St. Louis, same as every other square inch of America, was built on Native land. Mostly stolen Native land.
“You can’t understand the history of St. Louis without understanding the history of Cahokia, that it’s the confluence and has been important gathering site for millennia,” McAnally said.
Cahokia, centered just east of St. Louis across the Mississippi River in Illinois, was one of the greatest cities of the world, larger than London in 1250. A vast network of trade connecting most of the continent moved through here, not to mention some 50,000 people in and around the development. Remember Cahokia when hearing lies about how what became America was unpeopled and unsophisticated before European colonizers arrived.
Critically, before presuming to share this story, Counterpublic asked.
“It started with a proposal to the Osage Nation, the ancestors of the mound builders, the Mississippians; we went through the formal protocol–approaching them–of what it would look like to work at Sugarloaf Mound, which is one of their most sacred sites,” McAnally explained.
When the Osage Nation purchased part of Sugarloaf Mound in 2007, the site was reabsorbed into the Nation, extending Osage territory from the site of their displacement in Oklahoma back to their ancestral homeland.
“It is not a space that is publicly programmed and it required tribal approval, so they had to invite us in and say, we trust that we can work together with respect,” McAnally added.