LEXINGTON, Ky. — Universities across the country are having productive conversations about race and representation, but what happens when campus public art is caught in the crossfire between a desire to preserve history and cultural sensitivity? In 1934, artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted a fresco in the University of Kentucky’s (UK) Memorial Hall under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. The mural is meant to represent various scenes of Kentucky’s state history up to that point and includes depictions of slaves working in fields, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk. However, UK president Eli Capiluto recently made the decision to cover the mural after members of student body said they felt its portrayal of certain ethnic and racial groups was degrading.
“The irony is that in this instance artistic talent, however skilled or well-intentioned, sanitizes history, painting over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering represented by the enslavement of our fellow women and men,” Capiluto said in a statement to the university community. “We can no longer allow that to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to, the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit.”
Two weeks ago the mural was covered with a white cloth while campus and community members weighed in on the appropriate course of action. Some are petitioning for the mural to be completely removed, others feel it should be left as is since it is a piece of history, while yet others simply feel that the mural needs to be contextualized for contemporary visitors.
“I feel offended that I attend a PWI (predominately white institution) and there’s a mural with my ancestors picking tobacco and dancing for their masters in a prominent building on campus,” says Christina Lucas, the general secretary of the the University of Kentucky Black Student Union. “There isn’t anything in Memorial Hall that says that the mural is outdated, so many of my non-black peers don’t understand how much it offends us.”
Lucas would like for the work to be removed, because in its current state it can still lead to racial misunderstanding. For example, a friend of hers stated that “a non-black UK student had said that ‘the slaves were happy in the mural,’ when defending UK’s decision to keep the mural,” suggesting that the fresco effectively paints over historical facts. However, other members of the community feel that to completely do away with O’Hanlon’s work does the university another disservice by erasing history altogether.
On November 30, an opinion piece ran in the local Lexington paper, The Herald-Leader, by author, farmer, and 2010 National Humanities Medal recipient Wendell Berry. He wrote:
The president further objects to the fresco on the ground that it reminds “one black student … that his ancestors were slaves.” That statement has at least two arresting implications: (1) that black students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slaves, and (2) that white students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slave owners. Do students, then, study history at our “flagship university” in order to forget it?
If forgetting history is now the purpose of higher education, I may be taking some risk by reminding the flagship censors of the persecution of Boris Pasternak by Soviet officials when ‘Dr. Zhivago’ was published in the West and awarded the Nobel Prize. I will go further into danger and remind them also that Thomas Merton wrote a brilliant appreciation of that novel and its author. Among much else of value Merton said this: “It is characteristic of the singular logic of Stalinist-Marxism that when it incorrectly diagnoses some phenomenon as ‘political,’ it corrects the error by forcing the thing to become political.”
Alan Cornett, a 1993 graduate of UK, agrees with Berry’s assessment and feels that the university should have been teaching the history of the mural in past years as a way to highlight what a special artifact it is.
“Those who claim it’s not a perfect representation of history are missing the point,” Cornett says. “It’s not meant to be a history textbook diagram. The mural is valuable not only as a window into Lexington’s history, but the mural itself [is] a valuable artistic artifact of a troubled time in our history, the Great Depression, and the extraordinary art it managed to produce.”
He continues: “The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post have all written major stories this year about the need for a national slavery museum and the movement to bring such a museum about. In light of those movements locally and nationally, it seems odd to me that while so many are working diligently in the arena of public history to remind Americans of the legacy of slavery that those on a university campus would seek, literally, to cover it up.”
Regardless of the work’s historical value, that doesn’t diminish the hurt that it still causes a large part of the university population.
“I believe that if any of [the] communities represented within a work express that a work is offensive then it is offensive to them,” says Miriam Kienle, an assistant professor of art history at UK. “We, as a university community, have to take that into account when considering works of public art.”
Kienle explains that when the mural was painted, UK had no African American students or faculty because of segregation. However, as UK becomes more diverse, a vigorous dialogue about representations of race — both past and present — is necessary in order to build an inclusive community.
“I think that we need to continue our campus-wide conversation about how to best contextualize and counter the mural’s content,” she says. “In the School of Art and Visual Studies, we are working on a symposium for the spring semester that will bring artists and art historians from diverse perspectives to present other case studies and propose possible ways forward.”
This search for a solution that satisfies all the members of this diverse community is part of why covering the mural was only temporarily viable. A follow-up statement from President Capiluto was sent to the UK body on Monday, letting recipients know that the mural will remain on campus for the foreseeable future.
“We will not destroy or remove or permanently hide the mural, but we will make the story told in the atrium of Memorial Hall more complete,” Capiluto wrote. “We will place this important work of art, brought to life by the remarkable talent of one of our own graduates, in the explicit and accurate context of the sober realities of our shared history and our advancing understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, and identity.”
How the mural will be contextualized remains to be seen. However, the narrative surrounding the O’Hanlon mural is an important reminder of how art can serve as both a depiction of history — whether accurate or inaccurate — and, if assessed appropriately, as as a catalyst for discussions intended to change how we represent the past while moving forward.