Installation view of Ann Rice O’Hanlon's mural in the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall (photo by Tim Webb, courtesy University of Kentucky)

Installation view of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s mural in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (photo by Tim Webb, courtesy University of Kentucky) (click to enlarge)

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.”

The current state of Ann Rice O’Hanlon's mural in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The current state of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s mural in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

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.

Detail of Ann Rice O’Hanlon's mural in the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall (photo by Tim Webb, courtesy University of Kentucky)

Detail of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s mural in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (photo by Tim Webb, courtesy University of Kentucky) (click to enlarge)

“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.”

The exterior of the University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall (photo by Triple Tri via Wikimedia)

The exterior of the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (photo by Triple Tri via Wikimedia)

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.

5 replies on “University of Kentucky Covers Up a Racially Charged Depression-Era Mural Amid Community Debate”

  1. This is sad.

    Wendell Berry was a professor of English at the University of Kentucky and wrote a seminal book on white racism called The Hidden Wound. It should be required reading, not the university required to adjust itself to the demands of students it exists to teach.

    And what’s with PWI? That “micro-aggressive” initialism didn’t exist when I was in college, but I do remember a discussion I had with a friend who was the head of diversity initiatives at the university we attended. He was complaining to me about the retention rate the university had for black students. I did not know if that rate was high or low. So I asked him what the retention rate of white students was. He didn’t know and admitted it was a good question. A lot of current protesting takes this path, where complaint and dislike are completely separated from the actual circumstances, or at least separated from earnest efforts to know what the circumstances are.

  2. Rock on, Wendell Berry! Being as that Berry wrote a pretty damn good number of books on the history of racism in the US.

    this “i’m an offended snowflake speaking out for the Universe about racism cuz I’m black” has gone from the ridiculous to the absurd. First, it’s a man suing the Metropolitan Museum of Art because Jesus in historic paintings (as in Titians and Rembrandts and 5th century religious icons) is shown as a not-black man; pow!, offended. Now this.

    Beginning with the whole Dolezal lynching, and on through this now, which will continue to happen, this mockery of the Black Power movement of the 60s is in full swing. Leave it to the young to utterly mash up history, even their own. Revisionism cuts more than one way.

  3. What standard or criteria should be used in determining if,
    and to what extent, any particular aspect of the University environment should,
    or should not be, excluded from the environment based upon a contention that
    such aspect of the University environment is “racially charged”?

    For example, if art objects are going be excluded from the
    University because of their depiction of certain people, groups, activities
    etc. in a way that would be viewed as offensive by some segment of the society,
    then should that same standard be applied to books in the University Library?

    So that if any segment of the society believes that a book contains
    some passage or image that any segment of society finds offensive that such
    book should be permanently removed from the library?

    If there is to be no such agreed-upon and rational standard applied
    across the board to art, books, etc., then should all such decisions been made
    emotionally on an ad hoc basis without any regard to consistency or
    rationality? What do you think?

  4. Is this really what the ” OTHER KENTUCKY ” has evolved into ?? A small handful of colored students… mainly the football and basketball teams along with a few low income freebie students are all that make up the “BLACK STUDENT UNION”. Oh, and their New Black Panthers buddies who hide from the cameras because most of them have outstanding Federal arrest warrants.

    Just who do these Black Lies Matter agitators think they are ?? Anything that upsets them or makes them feel bad is wrong and must go !! These cry babies need to have their diapers changed and go find their SAFE SPACE for a long nap !! They get cranky like this if you don’t feed them often or take enough nappies !!

    This whole my feelings are hurt and this makes me sad and I don’t feel safe is really getting ridiculous ! What’s next…KFC restaurants have to go because of the colonel makes them feel unsafe !!
    Please…all colored students….you are in college… you may not like everything that you see or hear !! TOO BAD…that is all part of life and growing up…which most of you need to grow a pair and get over yourselves !!! YOU ARE NOT THE REASON that most students go to college for. Hey…don’t feel safe or important,… GO TO AN ALL BLACK COLLEDGE AND LEAVE THE ADULTS ALONE IN THEIR REAL SCHOOL !!!

  5. While various student groups fight these Culture Wars skirmishes as if they were the Battle of Stalingrad, The Corporate Confederacy is voraciously looting our collective future wholesale. Political bankruptcy today. Financial bankruptcy tomorrow.

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