David Adjaye on His First Permanent Sculpture: This Is ‘How I Imagine an Ideal City’

In 2020, Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye spent some time in his father’s village in Ghana during the COVID lockdowns. While there, he was inspired by the architecture of low-slung buildings made from rammed earth in the community—which partly influenced his first permanent public sculpture, titled Asaase III.

“[The sculpture] is, in a way, a representation of how I imagine an ideal city,” Adjaye told ARTnews “a city that is in symbiosis with the Earth, acknowledging it and honoring it in a very deep way, but also absolutely transforming it and creating new features.”

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The artwork is located at The Griot Museum of Black History in St. Louis, Missouri, and was commissioned by curator Allison Glenn for the 2023 Counterpublic triennial.

It marks a new career milestone for one of the world’s most sought after architects, who is known for designing some of the most famous structures globally, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the first Ghana Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.  

ARTnews spoke with Adjaye and Glenn about the sculpture and how Counterpublic fosters change by investing in communities. The conversation has been condensed.

Can you speak about the discussions leading to you creating your first permanent public sculpture?

David Adjaye: The “Asaase” earth sculpture series was really born out of my own meditations and reflections after returning to my motherland, Ghana, around the origins of black architecture and its relationship to the earth. It’s about lunging backward into collective memory to explore how fragments of chambers and of buildings constructed from the earth were the backdrop of everyday life and the gatherings of Black people. 

I was compelled by the idea of a permanent sculpture at The Griot as it proposes a new type of activation as a social sculpture that builds on and contributes to the cultural infrastructure established by the museum. I was deeply moved by The Griot’s institutional journey, resilience, and longevity, which the work aims to acknowledge, honor, and amplify.

Portrait of Sir David Adjaye.
Courtesy of Adjaye Associates

The sculpture is said to be borne from your ongoing reflections on the origins of Black architecture. Can you explain that and how it influenced this work?

Adjaye: In my work I am continually searching for spaces that are either built by the Black community or inhabited by the Black community as spaces of ownership that become part of the hybridized catalog of a body of knowledge. Establishing this body of knowledge of spatial Black experience is so vital because the history of colonization was about the erasure of their spaces—erasing the sense of continuity of the community to the Earth. 

The Griot’s DNA is resisting that erasure and my hope is that Asaase III is a reminder of that by inviting you to reflect on the environment you’re in. You can engage with the community and engage with this place. 

You drew inspiration from the architecture in your father’s village and the practice of sourcing materials directly from a site for this project. How did you find applying that in a new environment?

Adjaye: As with any work, each new site proposes its own opportunities and challenges. We went through a highly technical process of excavation to determine the ideal hybrid mixture of the different earths of St. Louis and wider Missouri, from its topsoil to its limestone to the red earth brick that encapsulates some of the old buildings. 

What’s the thinking behind referencing historical works of West African architecture— such as the Tiebele royal complex in Burkina Faso and the walled city of Agadez in Niger—in this work?

The “Asaase” series is, in part, about looking back and referencing the history of materials, lost knowledge systems, and forms that we see across the African continent. I started with the idea of conical forms, which are basically the first acts in an earth terrain, in a forest terrain, or in a savannah terrain. 

The curved form is the most structural form to create stability and resistance. It’s the form humans use as their first way of creating enclosures between inside and outside. For this sculpture, I bisected conical forms to present them, as it were, to an audience that wants to engage with it spatially. 

It’s not so much about mimicry or caricature of these ancient forms but rather their essence, their elemental DNA. It’s the Earth calling you to honor who you are and your relationship to other people, to history, and to the future.

Considering your several career milestones, how significant is designing your first permanent public sculpture?

Adjaye: It’s very significant. In terms of personal meaning, I have approached it as a kind of meditation and reflection on the idea of deep time—planetary and galaxy time that is beyond the human timeline. Part of the ambition for this work is for it to have an epic duration wherein we might not be around to see its entire lifespan. It’s an incredible privilege and luxury to think about how this work can be a reminder of that, of how the Earth is evolving and revolving around the galaxy independent of our lifestyle and inhabitation. Artifice has taken over our sense of reverence for the Earth which concerns me. 

Asaase III is, in a way, a representation of how I imagine an ideal city—a city that is in symbiosis with the Earth, acknowledging it and honoring it in a very deep way, but also absolutely transforming it and creating new features. 

Glenn, can you speak on the decision to commission David Adjaye for this work?

Allison Glenn: When I was invited to think through working in the St. Louis Place neighborhood, and possible collaborations with The Griot, it was important to first understand the landscape and history of the neighborhood and museum. St. Louis Avenue used to be known as “Millionaire’s Row”, mainly due to the St. Louis red-brick mansions that were built to house the city’s wealthy merchants. The Griot is situated about 1 mile from the former site of Pruitt-Igoe, a Minoru Yamasaki designed mid-twentieth century housing development that was built from 1951-1955, and demolished just twenty years later, from 1972-1976.

Across the street from the Griot is the future site of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) main campus, on land taken by eminent domain. Many of the vast urban prairies that make up a large majority of the neighborhood immediately surrounding The Griot are now owned by private developers, in anticipation of the future capital that the NGA will bring to the neighborhood. With all this speculation at play, I wondered, who is thinking about the present moment and the present occupants of this neighborhood?

About 25 years ago, when its founder Lois Conley purchased the building that houses the Griot, she also purchased adjacent lots, with the vision of one day developing a sculpture garden. Lois’s vision for the Griot is “to be the premier resource for Black history and culture in the Midwest”, so I leaned into both of those things.

I was aware that [Adjaye] was exploring a new form of sculpture, which included using materials from the region and landscape that it was created within, that was informed by African architectural histories, including the Tiébélé Royal Complex in Burkina Faso and the Walled City of Agadez in Niger. While at The Griot, I began to pick up on a bit of symbolism that aligned with David’s references, including the Sankofa logo.

Commissioning a work of this scale at the Griot is an attempt to anchor this institution not only to the community that it serves, but also to larger histories and legacies that are at the core of its mission, and other Black history museums in the United States that David has built, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the new Studio Museum in Harlem.

Portrait of Allison Glenn, Co-curator of Counterpublic 2023.
Photo by Rana Young

Asaase III will be donated to the Griot Museum of Black History and pilot a two-year full-time fellowship to maintain, contextualize, and conserve the work. What makes Asaase III the right foundation to start the pilot? 

Glenn: Placing a work within a community requires care, context, and conservation, and proposing a 2-year fellowship pilot as a collaboration between Counterpublic, The Griot, and St. Louis Art Museum provides an opportunity for an emerging cultural producer to receive mentorship and hands on experience in conservation, with the hope that this pilot develops into a pipeline for conservators, programmers, and art handlers of color to enter the field. 

The deep investment in the community and this sculpture requires that it has a staff person dedicated to thinking through the way it is received in the neighborhood, and how the sculpture can be deployed with David’s vision.

The pilot seeks to create a pipeline for conservators of color to enter the field. How important is that, and in what ways would it shape the industry?

Glenn: In my years of working within biennial models and museums, it’s been rare to see this corner of the field (art handlers and conservators) be populated by people of diverse backgrounds. The opportunity to enact real change starts with affording opportunities that will train and develop the next field leaders, in every area and discipline, which is one of the most important steps towards enacting whole, systemic change within our arts organizations.

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