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Public Art St. Paul hosts first ever “Wakpa Art Festival”

An installation in India that is part of the presentation at the Weisman Art Museum. (Courtesy of The Wakpa Art Festival)

The new Wakpa Art Festival is billed as a triennial - meaning it will return every three years. Similar art festivals, such as the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale serve as major tourism draws while generating press and support for the arts.

Public Art Saint Paul Executive Director Colleen Sheehy says that while the planning for the triennial started in 2018, the events of the past five years inspired PASP to expand the event beyond its original scope. Sheehy says the inaugural festival’s theme - “Network of Mutuality” - is a concept coined by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Network of Mutuality was chosen from Dr. Martin Lither King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail as a way of talking about how we are related to each other, and how we should be. And definitely between the pandemic and the uprising after George Floyd was murdered, we saw vividly and tragically, what happens when we don’t pay attention to our network of mutuality,” she said.

A Network of Mutuality is a recognition that social justice issues are not defined by communities, but rather an ongoing struggle against unjust systems. King coined a now infamous line in explaining it, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The triennial seeks to demonstrate a network of mutual care through art, working in collaboration with 25 different exhibits across the Twin Cities and in Red Wing and Winona. Wakpa features more than 90 different artists, with a focus on showcasing BIPOC talent.

The festival also takes inspiration from Dakota culture. “Wakpa” is the Dakota word for “river.” Sheehy says it’s an acknowledgement of how important the Mississippi River is to sustaining the environment in Minnesota and beyond. The festival refers to the Mississippi “a place of renewal, nourishment, and respite,” and says that art acts in the same way.

“A river is such a galvanizing part of our landscape, and it’s also metaphorical, there are a lot of ways of thinking about how water flows and how ideas flow,” said Sheehy. “In [Dakota] thinking, we don’t only have a network of mutuality with other humans, but it’s with all the species that we share the Earth with, and with relatives, and the Mississippi River is a relative, it’s not just a resource, [as it is] in the kind of Western view of nature.”

The triennial is scheduled to run throughout the summer, ending on Sept. 16. In that time, visitors can visit a host of events, including an eARTH Lab on June 15 at Western Sculpture Park, and Vietnamese Papermaking at MCBA June 17 -18. The Minnesota Humanities Center is also hosting a series of related Critical Conversations.

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