Artist Xavier Tavera with his public artwork, "Evocation of a Latin Dance Club," in Minneapolis. Credit: Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

The first-ever Wakpa Triennial Art Festival began June 24 and runs for 12 weeks. Wakpa is the Dakota word for “river.”

The festival features new public art installations, exhibitions, and conversations with 110 local artists. Folks can see the artworks and attend programming across the Twin Cities, the metro area, Red Wing, Winona, and even in the Mississippi itself.

Colleen Sheehy is the executive director of Public Art Saint Paul, the nonprofit behind Wakpa. She says the triennial was inspired by festivals like Art Prize in Michigan, the Toronto Biennial and the Front Triennial in Cleveland, Ohio.

“They developed it specifically to bring people to Cleveland because people in Cleveland feel similar to how we often feel, we’re flyover country and people don’t necessarily think of us as this art destination. But we have this amazing art scene. We have amazing organizations from the small scale to the anchor institutions like the Walker and Mia,” Sheehy says.

“So, seeing how this has brought vitality and interest to other cities, in the United States, in Canada … It’s exciting, to do something big, and to do something that isn’t lodged in any one institution.”

The theme for the inaugural festival is “Networks of Mutuality,” inspired by the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sheehy says. She hopes the festival helps people heal, have tough conversations and fall back in love with Minnesota after the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic.

“This is a way that we can really present artists as leaders in leading conversations,” Sheehy says. “The art is really going to help us with a rebirth of our cities, get us around looking at places we may not have been, experiencing places, meeting people, going into neighborhoods, or along the river. 

Sheehy says the majority of public art, exhibitions, and programming are from communities of color. Most of the programming during the 12-week festival is free and publicly accessible.  

“Some [artists] have been commissioned to create significant outdoor work. So, for instance, Xavier Tavera is doing this amazing piece,” Sheehy says.

Tavera’s public artwork is called “Evocation of a Latin Dance Club”—one of the first major works to go up for the festival that was made possible by a national Andy Warhol Foundation grant.

On Wednesday, Tavera guided the piece’s installation at East Lake Street and 27th—the site of the former El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub. The artwork pays homage to the community hub, which was burned and then demolished in the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd. In fact, both George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed him, had worked security at the club.

Tavera recalled seeing regional Mexican bands there, playing the drums with a Venezuelan band and attending political and dance events.

“It was important because it was a place to come, a place to sort of display all the culture and energy from a long week’s work,” Tavera said. “We come to El Nuevo Rodeo to listen to music, to be with friends, be with people that we know or didn’t know.”

In the now empty grass plot, Tavera watched as a crane lifted his massive artwork through the air and placed it high up on metal braces.  

“It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s a lot of work, months of work,” said Tavera, who added that it was a major community effort.

“Evocation of a Latin Dance Club” consists of a shipping container outfitted with the outlines of nine Latinx people cut out in steel. Tavera calls them archetypes, based on folks he has photographed. The figures include a cowgirl, an Aztec dancer, a worker, a pachuco, and a wrestler. The container is placed ten feet in the air because the nightclub was on the second floor.

When approached to do the triennial, Tavera says he wanted “to do something that will be relevant for the Latinx community in Minnesota and specifically in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This was a great void. This was this absence that I needed to do a comment on it.”

At night, the figures will light up from within. Tavera will host a community event at the site in September.

Alex V. Cipolle is a journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work covering art, culture, and society has appeared in the New York Times, Hyperallergic, Fast Company, The Oregonian, the Star Tribune, ARCHITECT...