Artist, Warren at odds over 'censorship' of public art

Artist incensed after utility box honoring Pokanoket Ousamequin partially painted over

By Ted Hayes
Posted 6/22/21

An artist commissioned this Spring to paint an image of Pokanoket Massasoit Ousamequin on a utility box near Burr's Hill is accusing the Town of Warren of censorship, after the town directed Warren's …

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Artist, Warren at odds over 'censorship' of public art

Artist incensed after utility box honoring Pokanoket Ousamequin partially painted over

Posted

An artist commissioned this Spring to paint an image of Pokanoket Massasoit Ousamequin on a utility box near Burr's Hill is accusing the Town of Warren of censorship, after the town directed Warren's partner in a public art project to paint over a portion of the painting she completed in late April.

It's a charge Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli vehemently denies — in his opinion, he said, the recent modification of artist Jessica Brown's artwork is not censorship, just the town doing diligence, upholding the terms of a contract and trying to be respectful of all of the area's indigenous peoples.

Ms. Brown, a Rhode Island School of Design professor, was one of a handful of artists commissioned by the town and its partner, The Avenue Concept of Providence, to paint original artworks on utility boxes throughout the downtown area. It was the second round of the town's public art project, begun two years ago.

A mockup of her artwork, approved initially by Mr. Rulli and the Warren Arts & Culture Commission, was a brightly colored homage to the Pokanoket Massasoit Ousamequin, who called the area home 400 years ago and is now buried nearby in Burr’s Hill Park.

After the painting was completed, town officials received at least one complaint about a phrase Ms. Brown added at the top of the utility box, facing Main Street at its intersection with Campbell Street: "Land of the Pokanoket."

That phrase created problems for the town, Mr. Rulli said, as it was not included in Ms. Brown's initial application and thus was not authorized under her contract with the town.

"I think she did an incredible job. But if we had known that she was going to add that in the beginning, we would have dealt with it. We had not authorized that."

After the town became aware of the additional text, Mr. Rulli reached out to representatives of the Avenue Concept, who in turn reached out to Ms. Brown and asked her to paint over the phrase. She refused, and several days later a representative came out and painted over it himself.

To Ms. Brown, the modification was an insult to her art and intent. It also showed the town's true colors, she said:

"It's really not OK," she said. "With my work I want to talk about difficult social justice issues. Who was upset about this? Because I want to know and I think the town needs to have that conversation, about racism and covering over what you don't want to see."

"You can't just erase me."

Mr. Rulli said the decision to modify the painting was not taken lightly and was important, as he believes the phrase put the town in an awkward position.

"I'm sorry she feels like she was being censored," he said. "It's not censorship. The Pokanokets certainly have their own version of history, and I'm not saying it's right or wrong. We're not taking sides, but we just didn't want to be in a situation where the town was perceived as playing favorites. There's more than one (Native American) tribe."

In the research she did leading up to the painting, Ms. Brown consulted with current Pokanoket Sachem Tracey Brown to make sure she portrayed Ousamequin as accurately as possible, and said she learned a good bit about the area's history during her research.

The Pokanoket sachem said she was happy to work with the artist to help her present an image that paid respect to Ousamequin and the Pokanokets. Still, she said, she "does not see a problem" with the town's decision to paint over the phrase.

"It's more of a communication issue between the artist and the town than anything," Sachem Brown said.

"What she did was historically accurate and correct, and history is on her side. But we have a great relationship with the town and they have always been very respectful. Going forward, maybe we just need to learn a little so that in the future, things like this don't happen."

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