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Citywide art project hopes to reveal forgotten history of St. Louis


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: A public art exhibition explores art as a way of uncovering hidden history and addressing contemporary urban life.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to St. Louis for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Damon Davis, Artist: Right now, we are probably standing in somebody's living room or kitchen or something like that. So, yes. So, yes, we are, I guess, in the neighborhood, but you have to use your imagination, because the buildings are gone.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.

Not far from downtown St. Louis, it's famed arch in the distance, the old buildings are gone. This was the site of an historic and vibrant Black neighborhood called Mill Creek Valley, razed in the name of urban renewal in the late 1950s.

Now it's memorialized in a large public installation titled Pillars of the Valley, each pillar holding an hourglass shape signifying the passage and loss of time and people.

Damon Davis: One, representation of time, but also the pillars, like pillars of the community.

Jeffrey Brown: With inscribed quotations from some of those who once lived here, their names and occupations nearby.

It's the work of 38-year-old St. Louis artist Damon Davis.

Damon Davis: Because I'm a kid that grew up in East St. Louis. So I have been in this area my entire life, St. Louis, East St. Louis, and I had never heard about this, and I thought I had a very good grasp on Black history, specifically where I was from.

Jeffrey Brown: So you're thinking, why don't I know about this?

Damon Davis: Yes. And I wanted to make sure no other kid ever -- that ever happened again.

Jeffrey Brown: Weeks earlier, this was the site of the opening of an ambitious citywide public art exhibition, of which the Pillars are part, titled Counterpublic; 30 artists were commissioned to create works along a six-mile axis from the city's south to its north, much of it running along Jefferson avenue, a main thoroughfare.

There are small pieces, such as sculptures by Matthew Angelo Harrison at the George B. Vashon Museum of African American History, and very large works including Torkwase Dyson's Bird and Lava in St. Louis Place Park, with sound inspired by Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer who lived and worked in the city for several years.

Video by an artist who goes by the name X projected onto the bluff of a Mississippi River industrial zone. Wind chimes by Raven Chacon paraded through city streets and then hung in Benton Park. A mural titled Justice by Simiya Sudduth based on a tarot card, and much more.

Counterpublic artistic director James McAnally:

James McAnally, Artistic Director, Counterpublic: We talk about this as a civic exhibition, in particular, because we're really trying to think about, where does art connect with social change? Where does it connect with the city itself?

This was a moment where, across our country, monuments were being taken down, recontextualized. And this question of how are we telling history and public was really on people's minds, and so we took that up as our mission.

Jeffrey Brown: As a starting point, McAnally writes in the catalog," "St. Louis is, for better and worse, at the crux of American history," the gateway to the West, based on ideas of manifest destiny and realities of Indian annihilation and removal, a long history of racial discrimination and violence, up to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a police officer and the Ferguson protests and riots that followed.

John Yang: In St. Louis, 10 children...

Jeffrey Brown: Divisions and tensions continue, and just a few days after our visit, a downtown shooting that left 10 injured and one dead.

James McAnally: Art can't exist in a silo in a city like St. Louis. That's very clear, especially public art, where immediately you're talking about public safety.

Immediately, you're talking about land ownership or gentrification. Kind of the changes of the city itself become part of the art and we wanted to be very intentional and say, like, we think that we could do this better.

Jeffrey Brown: One examples still in progress when we visited, renowned architect David Adjaye, designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, is erecting a sculpture of earth walls that will enhance the grounds of the Griot Museum in the north of the city.

Another theme, uncovering past history, captured in a work next to Sugarloaf Mound, consider the oldest human-made structure in St. Louis, the last remnant of a once thriving indigenous culture. Above, billboards created by Counterpublic artists. Below, an installation titled WayBack by artist Anita Fields.

Anita Fields, Artist: And they also are used during our ceremonial...

Jeffrey Brown: With a soundtrack by her musician son Nokosee.

Fields is a member of Osage Nation, whose people once lived in this area before being removed to Oklahoma, where Fields grew up and lives.

Anita Fields: You know, it's a very complex history that we have in this area, of removal, of erasure, the ideas behind manifest destiny and Western movement and how that affected us, as Osage people, our culture, all aspects of a being Osage.

Jeffrey Brown: Her response, 40 colorful platforms adorned with ribbons and iconography, structures she remembers from her own youth used for family and ceremonial gatherings, symbols of a continuous culture.

Anita Fields: I thought, well, why not initiate a series of platforms where we can put them in a situation where people in this area can come and also sit here and enjoy, but also think about the history of this place?

Jeffrey Brown: Does it, in that sense, reclaim that history or bring forward that history for you?

Anita Fields: Yes, that is my hope.

We are actually making our way back. There's a double meaning there. So by having this installation with these platforms, we are making our way back to this -- to our -- part of our ancestral homeland.

Jeffrey Brown: A way back, but also, the organizers of Counterpublic hope, a way forward. Some of the artworks are ephemeral, including an opening day jeep parade of sights and sounds through city neighborhoods.

But others will remain, and Damon Davis' Pillars of the Valley will continue to grow, as new sculptures stretch along a mile-long greenway. For Davis, Counterpublic is also a statement for the local art scene.

Damon Davis: People consider us a flyover spot, but we don't get the type of respect that many other coastal cities get when it comes to art and creation. So I really liked the idea of people being able to stay at home and the world coming to us, and the idea of public art and what it can do to change the civic makeup of the city in a positive way, just like outstanding.

I haven't heard anything like that. And I like that it's happening home -- at home, here.

Jeffrey Brown: Now it is happening here.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in St. Louis.

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