Artist: Ann Rice O’Hanlon
Date of Action: November 25, 2015
Region: North America
Location: Lexington, Kentucky, United States of America
Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion
Medium: Painting, Public Art
Confronting Bodies: University of Kentucky
Description of Artwork: Ann Rice O'Hanlon was a 20th-century American visual artist who painted murals. An alumna of the University of Kentucky, O'Hanlon painted a wall-length mural (fresco) inside the university's Memorial Hall in 1934 as part of the Treasury Relief Art Project, with funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The 11 x 38 foot fresco depicts the history of Kentucky through a series of vignettes, including explorers on the frontier, horse racing and scenes of downtown Lexington, the construction of log cabins, fishing off a bridge, passengers riding in a train, and horse training. It includes depictions of African-Americans picking tobacco in the fields, white people dancing to music played by black musicians, and a Native American peering from the woods at a white woman gathering water from a stream.
The Incident: After students of color at the University of Kentucky objected to the mural, the administration draped the work in white fabric. In a November 23 statement issued two weeks after a meeting with two dozen African-American students, University President Eli Capilouto related this comment:
"One African American student recently told me that each time he walks into class at Memorial Hall he looks at the black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and receives the terrible reminder that his ancestors were enslaved, subjugated by his fellow humans. Worse still, the mural provides a sanitized image of that history."
On November 25, 2015, the administration covered the entire fresco in white sheets. Capiluoto referred to the shrouding as an interim action, as a "long-term answer will take some time." Capilouto also created a task force made up of faculty, staff and students.
Results of Incident: The American poet, novelist, activist and farmer Wendell Berry wrote an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader denouncing the University of Kentucky’s decision. Excerpts:
"I don’t believe Ann Rice O’Hanlon would willingly have painted 'a painful and degrading personification of a false, romanticized rendering of our shared history.' I don’t think she did. I don’t think, to quote President Eli Capilouto again, that 'the mural provides a sanitized image of that history' or that her 'artistic talent actually painted over the stark reality' of slavery."
"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?"
The task force concluded the mural should be displayed, but with a wall text alongside it to give historical context to the work. The mural remained covered until April 2017 when the drapery was removed and the mural was once again put on display but with signage describing its history, including the concerns voiced about it over the years.
In a blog post, UK President Capilouto stated:
“Against that backdrop, the concern, for many, is that the mural does not adequately reflect the violence and inhumanity that many experienced through subjugation and slavery,” he said. “Those questions of intent, context and perception have become part of a larger conversation at UK about racial climate. And, as is so often the case, we’ve been led by students.”
Victory: A Year On, University of Kentucky Uncovers Controversial Mural Depicting Slaves, NCAC, BY SVETLANA MINTCHEVA, orig. post Dec 3, 2015; Update: Apr 21, 2017
Controversial UK mural uncovered, this time with context, BY LINDA BLACKFORD, March 24, 2017
Wendell Berry vs. Political Correctness, By ROD DREHER, December 1, 2015
Op-Ed: Censors on the flagship, BY WENDELL BERRY, November 30, 2015
Moral of UK mural debate: mutual respect: Kudos for uncovering a work of art and unveiling a new commitment to a diverse, inclusive campus, Sept 7, 2016
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