Black Americana on Display: URI Arts and Culture presents “We Shall Overcome!”

The URI Arts and Culture Program presents “We Shall Overcome!” an exhibit featuring both commissioned art and historical artifacts selected from Onna Moniz-John’s collection of Black Americana. The exhibit, which runs through February 27, is free and open to the public, and can be found on the first and second floors of the URI Feinstein Providence Campus on 80
Washington Street.

“Each year I try to find something different to focus on,” says Steven Pennell, coordinator of the Arts and Culture Program. “This year’s exhibit looks at the development of racism in the United States and how it was constructed. At the same time I wanted to make a conscious choice to highlight the people who have fought against prejudice and to celebrate
those individuals.”

Moniz-John is committed to bringing her collection to different communities. In addition to curating the current URI exhibit (her second), and showcasing pieces in other local museums, she has built a mobile museum of black history that has toured the country. The material
currently on display represents only a small fraction of her extensive collection.

“We Shall Overcome!” is alternately disturbing and uplifting. Moniz-John’s collection is arranged chronologically, spanning more than 400 years of black history. It toggles between artifacts that show the ways in which racist narratives have been constructed, and art that challenges or deconstructs those narratives, some of it commissioned by Moniz-John herself.

The exhibit often displays the present in dialogue with the past — both by juxtaposing artifacts with modern commentary and by reclaiming history that has been undervalued in mainstream narratives. Some of that history is local, eg, a contemporary portrait of a black regiment fighting in the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island.

“We want to educate the public as to how racism was constructed in America, celebrate the change that has occurred, and look at the change that still needs to occur,” says Pennell.

A reception and gallery talk with Moniz-John will be held on February 8 from 3:30-5:30, and the exhibit is part of a series of URI events celebrating Black History Month. That talk will follow “…Til Earth and Heaven Sing,” a Gospel concert presented by area singers and guest artists under the direction of Earl Bright III.