Honouring N.B. born Edward Mitchell Bannister: One of North America’s first prominent Black artists
SAINT JOHN, N.B. -- Edward Mitchell Bannister was one of the great American painters of the 19th century. Now, more than a century later, several ongoing projects have the goal of bringing more recognition to the New Brunswick born artist.
David Woods was a teenager in Dartmouth, N.S. when he first heard of Bannister’s name and story. Woods had picked up a clear signal from a Boston radio station when he heard a segment about Bannister being one of the first prominent Black artists in North America.
“I was an artist myself, a young artist, so that created quite an impression on me,” says Woods.
The segment mistakenly reported Bannister was from Nova Scotia. He was actually born in St. Andrews, N.B. in 1828. The Maritime connection was important to Woods and Bannister became a life-long inspiration.
“Somebody in my own terrain had reached a level of prominence to be in a Black history moment,” says Woods, remembering the importance of the moment.
According to Peter Larocque, a curator at the New Brunswick Museum, Bannister and his brother left New Brunswick by the early 1850s for Boston.
“He was a barber, he was a photographer, he was anything he had to be,” says Woods.
However, he never stopped painting and eventually entered a major juried competition.
“He did win the biggest art prize in all of America, the 1876 Centennial Medal,” says Woods. “He went up to accept his prize and (they) saw he was Black. They actually tried to deny it to him."
Bannister kept his medal and continued on with his breakthrough as a painter.
Bannister was also known for his work as an early activist for racial equality. He and his wife Christina Carteaux were prominent abolitionists in the Boston area.
Actor Tallas Munro will portray Bannister next week in “We Were Here” - a stage production for the Saint John Theatre Company featuring eight monologues celebrating important members of the Black community in New Brunswick's history.
“What he wanted to express, he expressed through his art. What freedom is and what it can look like,” says Munro.
Bannister died in 1901.
Now, his work can be found in museums and at auctions, where it sells for thousands of dollars.
“His work is in major collections. In the United States he is quite well known there, the Smithsonian has his work” says Emily Falvey, curator at Owens Art Gallery in Sackville, N.B. “There’s never been a major exhibition of his work in Canada.”
Efforts are underway to change that. Woods is planning an exhibition of Bannister's work at the Owens Art Gallery in 2023.
“We're kind of dependent on the collectors in the United States,” says Woods. “We're very hopeful for that.”