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Artist examines St. Louis' divisions in new exhibit at St. Louis Art Museum

The City & The City: Cotton Belt Freight Depot, 2015
(Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York ©Mariam Ghani)
The City & The City: Cotton Belt Freight Depot, 2015

Mariam Ghani came to St. Louis with the idea of an already divided city.

“There’s a lot of long and complicated history that goes into making St. Louis what it is today,” Ghani said.

Her inspiration stems from that complex history, the childhood of her choreographer and collaborator Erin Ellen Kelly, and a science fiction novel. That inspiration was turned into the multimedia piece "The City & The City," currently on display at the St. Louis Art Museum.

Ghani became interested in St. Louis because of Kelly, who grew up here. As Kelly exposed Ghani to the various idiosyncrasies of the community through road trips to the city and discussions, the artist began to see a connection between the city and a favorite novel, and an idea began to take shape. 

Artist Mariam Ghani
Credit Photography by Lyric Hunter. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York
Artist Mariam Ghani

Originally Ghani intended to use the book "The City & The City" by ChineaMiéville as both inspiration and metaphor for interpreting St. Louis.

The book takes place in a city where two countries developed, living side by side. The inhabitants are taught not to see citizens of the other country despite their close proximity. Acknowledging the opposing group is taboo. Someone is murdered, and a detective is forced to confront the “breach” between these two cultures. For Ghani this perspective mirrors the culture divisions in St. Louis.

“In St. Louis, there’s this long history of restricted deed covenants and the roll of the realtor associations in shaping those. There’s a long and very interesting history of tax policy and its role in creating the way that St. Louis works today,” Ghani said.

The narrative struck Ghani as a perfect metaphor for St. Louis. The feeling was reinforced when Michael Brown was shot on Aug. 9 in Ferguson.

“It’s not something that is necessarily imposed on us by the state, although it does come from a series of long histories of policy decisions and larger forces that shape our own perceptions and our own feelings about the way the world should work,” she said.

The exhibit consists of a video, sound sculpture and photography. The video interprets the book "The City & The City’s" narrative and maps certain plot points onto public spaces in St. Louis loaded with racial and class tension. The sound sculpture is an organized cacophony of voices, based on Ghani’s loose script, where people describe their experiences with St. Louis as a “divided city.”  The images capture the public spaces without the influence of narrative. 

https://vimeo.com/124305527">The City & The City (excerpt) from https://vimeo.com/ghanimariam">Mariam Ghani on Vimeo.

Related event

Currents 110: Mariam Ghani

  • When: April 8-July 12, 2015
  • Where: Saint Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis
  • More information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.