A life-size bronze statue of painter Edward Bannister (1867-1901) created by Rhode Island artist, Gage M Prentiss, was unveiled in Providence’s Market Square on September 10 in the context of its city-wide celebration of PVDfest.
As a figurative bronze with traditional patina, the medium harkens to 19th century monument. It engages controversy in relation to black experience because Bannister was Black and in the context of today “monument” within Black culture is a fraught area. Add to this that Gage M. Prentiss is a white artist, and it begs the question: What meaning is imbued?
For insight, I contacted Leora Maltz-Leca: Professor of Contemporary Art, Theory & History of Art & Design at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Curator of Contemporary Projects at Redwood Library and Athenaeum. She has experience with this cultural dialogue and said: “In theory, the race of an artist making a memorial seems to me less important than their willingness to acknowledge the trauma of United States history and how it shapes the present.
In practice, white artists, in this country, rarely do this. In the case of Bannister, who was an activist and abolitionist, I would trust that his lifelong struggles against racism and enslavement would be acknowledged in a memorial, especially given the choice of this exceptionally fraught site. Market Square marks the physical and symbolic ground zero of Providence’s (erased) history as a center of the trade in enslaved people, and it seems to me that any memorial here must do the work of naming and remembering the trauma and violence specific to this square, this market, and this waterway as a onetime port for Rhode Island’s slave ships.”
Previously for “Artscope Magazine,” I have written about the work of Becci Davis specifically her re-contextualization of public monument as seen through the lens of Black identity. I asked her for quotable perspective. She declined, but said, “I currently sit on the Providence Special Committee for Commemorative Works, which about a year and a half ago, met to discuss and offer a public statement and recommendation to the Parks Commissioners on this matter. For this reason, I do not feel comfortable offering my personal perspective outside of a public role.” It is her practice a natural evolution to transcend public action art protest to then participate in shaping new public art paradigms.
Artist Gage M. Prentiss approached the Providence Art Club to make this sculpture. He asked for PAC’s help in fundraising and to shepherd the project to completion. PAC’s vested interest is that the subject of the Bronze, Edward M. Bannister, was a founding member of the Club.
Nancy Gaucher-Thomas, President of Providence Art Club when Prentiss approached them about the possibility of making a publicly sited bronze, is now co-chair of “The Bannister Community Project” and has with others crowd-funded and rallied community support to reach this moment.
Excerpts from our dialogue follow:
SUZANNE VOLMER: There is tremendous sense of activism in Rhode Island especially in relation to the topic of reparations and re-contextualization of monuments regarding black identity: How do you think this project addresses those concerns?
NANCY GAUCHER-THOMAS “The Bannister Community Art Project began with an undeniable connection between two artists [Prentiss’ appreciation of Bannister, his life and art]. Over two-and-a-half years, this project has become a catalyst for creating and nurturing relationships, collaboration within the community [to deepen] understanding [toward] transformation and strengthening a community. The approach taken by the project has [connected] community leaders on various levels [providing] a platform for engagement through the Arts of a broader audience.”
“In 2020, the Providence Art Club [received] a generous gift by an anonymous donor — a bust of founder Edward Mitchell Bannister by sculptor Gage Prentiss which is displayed in the Founder’s Room. It was the impetus for the Bannister Community Art Project celebrating the life and legacy of one of PAC’s founders, Edward Mitchell Bannister. Gage Prentiss submitted a proposal to the Providence Art Club suggesting a sculpture of Bannister as a public art installation. It was during this time that an advisory committee was formed. Later in 2021, a steering committee was created comprised of Art Club and community members. Sub-committees were formed to handle and organize each aspect of the project [including]: Celebration (all Bannister Weekend through Bannister birthday events); Education (program with Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts); Development (finance and fundraising); Exhibitions (national curated exhibit for artists of color at the Providence Art Club).
“Further, a 400+ page bibliography was created by one of our colleagues, Mike McGuigan from the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA) and an application was submitted to the U.S. Postal Service for a stamp bearing Bannister’s image.
“One of our first efforts was to hold three town halls to bring together artists, community activists, historians, and community leaders — to gauge interest in the project and to engage the community at-large. Working with my Co-Chair, Jennifer Davis-Allison, we garnered an amazing group, enabling us to fulfill our mission to cultivate education, arts and culture.
“The proposal for the sculpture first went to the Commission for Commemorative Arts, chaired by Ray Rickman. A presentation was made and by unanimous vote was accepted. It then went to the Parks Commission under the direction of Commissioner Wendy Nilsson for approval by their governing body which included (the then current) Mayor Jorge Elorza where it was approved as a permanent sculpture for Market Square.”
SV: What do you see as the long view here of this process and for the sculpture?
NGT: “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to move the needle [of discourse] to be an anchor within the community for that change. This project has made its mark. I believe it has the potential to bring RI into a regional and national conversation on the new narratives that monuments (sculptures) capture and communicate about what this era values. Additionally, it places Bannister’s legacy within the long history of racial justice and resistance movements within Rhode Island and the larger U.S. context.
“Further, my hope is that this project sparks conversations and action that can lead to greater arts access, resources and credentialing for under-represented artists, youth and their communities.”
The materiality and permanence of the Bannister bronze as 19thcentury subject matter references Western expansionism and exploitation head on. Within the context of course correction Bannister is depicted at a human scale seated on a bench where someone can sit beside him. Gage M. Prentiss considers this a portrait in bronze rather than a monument. Of course, it is a monument with permanent placement ensured, the site granted by the city of Providence, but Prentiss included a sense of approachability as a component communicating a sense of daily activity and belonging.
Bannister is shown with a sketchbook in hand. The direction of his gaze is toward the opposite bank of the Providence River. Prentiss said that he imagined the romantic notion of Bannister looking toward his wife seated there. Her visage is etched into the bronze sketchbook as if Bannister had just drawn her. Prentiss focused attention on a relationship between two people rather than controversy.
Celebrated through the sculpture is Bannister’s artistic importance as a painter that professionally overcame the significant limitation of race. Denied a gold medal at the Philadelphia Exposition on the grounds that he was Black, he was awarded the prize after pressure from white colleagues who stood behind the merit of Bannister’s art and the man.
The dedication of the Bannister sculpture is the result of the work of many community partners, who spoke at the unveiling ceremony. Providence Mayor Brett P. Smiley declared September 10 as “Edward Mitchell Bannister Day” as part of a weekend of events celebrating “our past and present with aspirations for how we might frame a more enriched future through the lens of art.”