Sister Cities: Artist Modou Dieng Constructs a Bridge Between St. Louis and Saint-Louis

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In the opening pages of the exhibition catalog for “Saint-Louis to St. Louis: City on the River Meets River City,” there is a sepia-tone, postcard-like photograph of the Le Pont Faidherbe, a road bridge that runs over the Senegal River in West Africa. The bridge looks oddly reminiscent of bridges in St. Louis, Missouri, that run over the Mississippi River. The connecting arch-like domes over the span of Le Pont Faidherbe bear a resemblance to the McKinley Bridge; if one were to imagine Le Pont Faidherbe inverted, they might see a slight similarity to St. Louis’ Eads Bridge.

These bridges—and the bodies of water they span—serve as the point of departure for Modou Dieng, the curator for “Saint-Louis to St. Louis.” Having learned during his brief stint in St. Louis, Missouri, that Saint-Louis, Senegal, is its only African sister city, Dieng wanted to create a conversation between the two through visual art.

Years later, the show—currently on view at Barrett Barrera Projects in the Central West End, through a collaboration with Blackpuffin—has come to fruition, creating a narrative of visual works from the mid-20th century to the present by a handful of artists who were either born in Saint-Louis, have lived there or are simply inspired by the city’s impressively rich cultural life and aesthetics.

Dieng shared his conceptualization of the exhibition with Guided: St. Louis, culminating in the nascent idea to one day mount a show that includes works by artists from Saint-Louis and St. Louis side by side in order to maintain the bridges that continue to allow movement in each city and anticipate and inspire artistic movement between the two—the powerful thesis that already impressively undergirds the current show.

Guided: I know the idea has been percolating for a while. Can you talk about what inspired the exhibit?
Well, what inspired the exhibition is the fact that I am from Saint-Louis, Senegal. Michael Behle from Paul Artspace told me that St. Louis, Missouri, and Saint-Louis, Senegal, are sister cities. I was in Senegal for the Dakar Biennale and I was thinking about how to create a conversation between the two countries in terms of art and culture. Many of the artists there are emerging. There is a renaissance right now happening. The way it’s happening in African American arts, it’s happening in African art and culture. So, I was like, OK, if anybody would do a show that reflects one city to another one, it would be Saint-Louis to St. Louis because I know both places.

I talked to Susan [Barrett] about it, and she was like, “Are you kidding me? This is perfect.” So I went traveling to Senegal and Saint-Louis and looking at art that is coming from there, mainly artists from there, artists who live there and artists who are inspired by the city. All three together become a sort of window into Saint-Louis culture and Saint-Louis fashion and Saint-Louis arts. I compartmentalized it with photography, sculpture, painting, mixed media, fashion and lifestyle.

Sister Cities: Artist Modou Dieng Constructs a Bridge Between St. Louis and Saint-Louis

Guided: You were born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and you lived in St. Louis, Missouri, briefly before moving to Chicago. What things stood out to you?
I wouldn’t say I lived there [St. Louis] because I was there for six months and was mostly traveling. I didn’t really get the chance to know the roots of the city or know the neighborhoods. I got a chance to know people like you and Shabez [Jamal] and Kahlil [Irving]. It has a lot of history with, like, jazz music. So I got to discover the culture. I got to discover the emerging scene within the culture of art and fashion, which I found totally exciting and beautiful, and I wanted to be a part of it.

I thought that there would be a nice conversation going on, especially knowing the history of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, and knowing that there is work to be done to heal this community and bring more conversation and open a conversation between people in Africa and people in St. Louis. That was actually my first time, on a daily basis, to interact with an African American culture—because Portland, where I was [before St. Louis], doesn’t have a big African American community—and also a vibrant community that is contributing to conversation.

Sister Cities: Artist Modou Dieng Constructs a Bridge Between St. Louis and Saint-Louis

Guided: You mentioned the emerging arts in Saint-Louis, Senegal. In the six months that you were in St. Louis, did you notice similarities between the emerging arts scene in Saint-Louis and St. Louis?
There isn’t. There’s similarities between the histories of both places having the same name. My focus wasn’t really to find something similar but to actually create a conversation, and that could be about art, that could be about fashion, that could be about African history, that could be about economic finances, that could be about volunteering. But it was more about these two cities having the same name and coming from a French perspective and being able to see each other and talk to each other.

Guided: Can you tell me about how you selected some of the artists? Can you also highlight two or three works that you feel really speak to the mission of how you curated the show?
I wanted the show to be a window on the domestic life of Senegal. For example, if you look at the catalogue, I wanted to make the people in St. Louis, Missouri, be able to just see a little bit of what it’s like in Saint-Louis, Senegal, because you are bringing an exhibition that is speaking about a city and you want them to visualize it. Saint-Louis is the birthplace for African photography. The first photographers in Africa were from Saint-Louis, and they were trained by the French to photograph the French army during the late 19th century.  It becomes the birthplace of black people carrying a camera. Outside of the U.S., of course. So I wanted to really highlight the domestic aspect of Saint-Louis, because it has a strong tradition in terms of coming from a French colonized city. A lot of the domestic life is very mixed, Creole, like New Orleans. Imagine the French Quarter in New Orleans in Africa.

Guided: I remember when we met before, you said something about going to New Orleans and you said it was so similar.
Right. Exactly. It’s kind of like the same lifestyle in terms of the carnival, the music, the Creole culture, the fashion. Everything is out on the street. But also it’s an African city. It’s an old African city. So the way I selected the artists was to lean on photography and painting, but also people who were just famous from Saint-Louis, Senegal. I had to put them in the show. Like, for example, Serigne Mbaye Camara is a famous sculptor from Senegal and he was born in Saint-Louis. You have also Abdoukarim Fall, who is a great painter and also did work on the colonial architecture in Saint-Louis. And Manel Ndoye who—he’s not from Saint-Louis—but he did a very strong series of work about a very popular tradition of dance from Saint-Louis, Senegal. He is from the same setting, but in Dakar. Also, Adama Sylla, who is 80 years old, and he was in the second generation of photographers from Saint-Louis. He’s been taking pictures of his neighborhood since 1961. So I showed his late ’60s-1970s work.

Sister Cities: Artist Modou Dieng Constructs a Bridge Between St. Louis and Saint-Louis

Guided: The exhibition right now only features artists from Saint-Louis, Senegal, but is there a goal to do a show with artists from St. Louis, Missouri, and Saint-Louis, Senegal?
Yeah. Definitely. I want this to be a bridge that both sides can cross. Now, we did this show from Saint-Louis, Senegal, to St. Louis, Missouri, and I hope that we can do a show of St. Louis, Missouri, in Senegal. I don’t know what it would it take, what it would require and who’s going to be in the show. It’s to be determined. But yes, it would be nice if I bring a show from Missouri to Senegal.

Guided: Do you have any plans to show the work from both cities side by side?
That’s a good idea. I haven’t thought about it. You need to create that sort of platform, where they can both communicate and work together. I’m on the advisory board for Paul Artspace, so I have an idea with Michael [Behle] to start a residency in Missouri and Senegal of artists from both places. That kind of platform can create a conversation.

Saint-Louis to St. Louis: City on the River Meets River City,” the first exhibition at Barrett Barrera Projects’ new state-of-the-art project space in the Central West End, runs through Dec. 21. In a global artistic exchange of diaspora and hybridity, the exhibition features the work of artists Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Serigne Mbaye Camara, Rama Diaw, Modou Dieng, Abdoukarim Fall, Manel Ndoye, Jarmo Pikkujamsa, Djibril Sy, Adama Sylla, Sara de la Villejegu and Malick Welli. 

Images by Virginia Harold, courtesy of Barrett Barrera Projects.

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