The first Wakpa Triennial Art Festival takes over Minneapolis and St. Paul

New York has the Whitney Biennial, Los Angeles has the biennial Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum, and now Minnesota has the Wakpa Triennial Art Festival.

But there’s one big difference. The new Wakpa Triennial Art Festival takes a different approach to the popular artworld biennial and triennial models. Instead of being museum- or gallery-based, this event takes place at more than 25 arts organizations across the Twin Cities.

Wakpa kicks off on Saturday, runs for nearly three months and includes more than 110 artists.

“We’re going big and bold in the WAKPA Triennial, with a lot of projects that have been commissioned that will be in outdoor environments and public spaces,” said Public Art Saint Paul President and Executive Director Colleen Sheehy.

Public Art Saint Paul, the lead on this project, will work with about 35 organizational partners. Exhibitions and site-specific projects mostly will take place in smaller art galleries and cultural centers, but there also will be events or shows at museums.

The triennial takes inspiration from the Dakota word for river.

“Wakpa is the source of life,” writes Dakota writer, educator and artist Gwen Westerman in her essay for the triennial. “Rivers carry our first medicine, mni, that can nourish and heal us. To be near a river can be soothing, and to hear the sounds of water flowing, sounds of water filling, sounds of water falling.”

Artist Seitu Jones’ project “artARK” takes place at the Watergate Marina on the Mississippi and other locations, and he also will show work at Dreamsong Gallery.

The river shaped some projects, while uprising shaped others.

Xavier Tavera’s “Evocation of a Latin Dance Club” commemorates El Nuevo Rodeo, a Latin dance club formerly at Lake Street and 27th Avenue S. in Minneapolis. It burned to the ground during the uprising following George Floyd’s killing, and today only a ghostly Facebook page lingers.

Tavera’s project visualizes nine archetypes of the Latino community on the side of a 42-foot shipping container. Because the club was on the second floor, the containers will be elevated 8-10 feet high on metal structures.

“The nine or so characters will be lining up, but they’re not inside having a blast,” he said. “They’re essentially lining up to get in, and I’m doing this because the Latino community lines up for everything … there’s the notion of lining up for immigration purposes, for services, for pretty much everything. And one of these lines, of course, is to get into the club.”

Artist Angela Two Stars, whose public artwork often involves community participation, will present phase two of her 2021 project “The Transition Stage,” a space for holding community hopes, dreams and sorrows following the murder of George Floyd.

Pre-pandemic beginnings

Although planning for the Wakpa festival started before 2020, the pandemic and the uprising greatly shaped how it has come together.

This is not, however, the first triennial or biennial to come to the Twin Cities or the region.

Last year, Ginger Porcella, the former Franconia Sculpture Park executive director and chief curator, launched the 4Ground Biennial, an ambitious, two-month-long, multistate land art biennial.

In 2021, the Minnesota Museum of American Art (known as “the M”) invited 50 artists from the region to participate in “Many Waters: A Minnesota Biennial,” which took place in the window galleries of the M, at NewStudio Gallery in St. Paul, and the Q.arma Building in Minneapolis.

Before the Soap Factory was shuttered for good in 2019, it hosted four iterations of the Minnesota Biennial, with the last one in fall 2015 shortly before the arts organization went on hiatus at the end of 2015.

For Public Art Saint Paul, an art triennial that works with various organizations across different locations with a highly collaborative approach is, as Sheehy said, “just the way we work. … There’s almost nothing we do solo.”

Sheehy spoke with Porcella as she was developing the 4Ground Biennial, which was similarly spread out, but even more so across four states and with a focus on rural areas. Throughout the process, Sheehy received input from Indigenous people who were on various committees and the ideas that came from those conversations.

“In Toronto they call it the Toronto Biennial, or the Liverpool Biennial, and in Cleveland they have the Front International,” she said. “And then Prospect in New Orleans or Desert X in the Coachella Valley.”

They wanted to have more than just a name and the place.

“It adds to the poetics of the whole endeavor,” she said. “When the possibility of a Dakota word came up, that was what people gravitated to.”

Will this triennial stick around?

Two Stars used to live in Grand Rapids, Mich., and remembers how ArtPrize, the annual 18-day, citywide art competition, changed the city’s landscape.

“These festivals have the potential to give a community access to artists, and then also just gets people out in the community,” Two Stars said. “I think it’d be nice if Wakpa does continue, and with this being a pilot, it’s kind of the guinea pig.”


Wakpa Triennial Art Festival

When: June 24-Sept. 16.