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Who gets to tell America’s stories? Black artists are seldom asked to choose and shape theirs.

The process by which the artist was selected to create a commemorative monument to honor Edward Mitchell Bannister was not transparent

An image of the new sculpture of Edward Mitchell Bannister, one of the founders of the Providence Art Club and one of the few Black painters of the 19th century to win significant recognition.Handout

I first learned about Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901) when I lived in Chicago in the late 1970s, a time when it was difficult for Black artists to get any representation in major galleries. I was fortunate to know Emilio Cruz, an incredible Black artist who was my graduate adviser at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and who introduced me to Bannister. Through him, I also learned about Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, Charles White, Romare Bearden, and many more Black artists whom I never encountered in my studies. Through these introductions, Emilio challenged me, as a young aspiring artist, to make art meaningful to my life and to Black history.


I asked Emilio, “How can you be a champion when the ceiling is so low?”

Emilio answered, “Use the ceiling to create a new game. Turn limitation into an opportunity.”

This incredible sage advice stuck with me for two reasons. It was a signal that, as a young Black artist, the battle was yet to begin, that success, if it came, would not be easy. But it was also a signal of hope, a pathway to a solution and success.

As I reflect on this conversation, the complex story of Bannister comes to mind. Entered anonymously as “Lot 54″ at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, Bannister’s “Under the Oaks” painting won the visual arts prize. When Bannister came to claim it, he was summarily dismissed. He insisted on being heard and revealed that he was the creator of the painting. The room exploded into shouts and curses. Eventually, everyone calmed down enough for him to receive his prize.

“Under the Oaks” was purchased by a “Mr. Duff of Boston,” its whereabouts are unknown today. I re-tell this story not to point out how Bannister was first dismissed and then undermined, but to highlight a story that occurs repeatedly for many Black artists who dared to turn limitations into opportunity.


This brings me to the focus of this statement: the process by which the artist was selected to create the Bannister sculpture, also known as the Bannister Project, was not transparent. In fact, the only person considered was a white artist. The artist’s race, in itself, is not a problem. But it becomes one when no other artists are allowed to submit proposals or ideas for a commemorative monument to honor a historical figure of such magnitude.

Migrating from the South, I think about the role distance plays in my work. Realizing that I can’t separate myself from where I come from, I connect my southern roots with my adopted home in Providence, in the same way Bannister connected his Canadian roots with his adopted Providence home.

Providence presents a challenge because of its complex narratives in the contested space of documented history — among them, erasure of indigenous peoples, Cape Verdean immigrants, and enslaved Africans. A commemorative monument is an opportunity for speculative experiences — i.e., re-imagined possibilities.

Who gets to tell America’s stories, particularly those stories as they relate to the experience of people of color?

The Bannister monument will undoubtedly have increasing commemorative value once on display, and for many years to come. As a commodity of commemoration, it certainly has meaning to the Providence Art Club, its fiduciary agent, and value to the history of Providence.


But I ask, what does that mean to Black artists and those artists of color who seldom benefit from the “Commodity Process”? They know that the art franchise in this country is geared not to include them. They are seldom asked to choose and shape their stories, to share their research, and to use their creative and spiritual powers to tell those stories. They see their birthright and their inheritance being questioned. And now they see themselves being removed from the inclusion process.

It is dangerous to allow this process to go unchallenged. To say nothing, as if to pretend that there is some shared experience that makes it okay to silence and exclude artists of color.

Bannister succeeded despite the challenges, and his humanity transcended the limitations of his era. The Bannister story is one of preservation and restoration. His story is one of resilience, an essential attribute that allows ‘us’“us” to continue to dream, vision, and create. It’s a story similar to those of every young Black artist and artist of color today. I will always fight for every artist’s right, including and especially artists of color, to be heard. Celebrating Bannister is also our opportunity to flip the script, “to turn limitation into an opportunity,” and create a fair and inclusive process for all artists to delight, disrupt, and deliver their creative capital.

Providence artist Bob Dilworth, a University of Rhode Island professor emeritus and Rhode Island School of Design graduate, is an original member of the Bannister Project.