University of Kentucky Memorial Hall mural

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Artist: Ann Rice O’Hanlon

Year: 1934

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 funds 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: Students of color at the University of Kentucky objected to the mural. 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 fabric. 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: In response to the incident, the American poet, novelist, and activist Wendell Berry wrote an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader denouncing the University of Kentucky’s decision:

"The president...objects to the fresco on the grounds 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?"

In April 2017, the administration removed the drapery and the mural was once again visible; after nearly two years under wraps, the task force had concluded that the mural should be displayed, but with accompanying wall text to give historical context to the work. Signage describing its history, including the concerns voiced about it over the years, was added nearby.

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.”

In August 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the University of Kentucky commissioned Philadelphia artist Karyn Olivier to create a work that responds to the mural. A new committee had been formed to solicit a public artwork in response to be installed in a vestibule at the entrance of the building. Eventually, after having first issued an open call to artists for submissions, the committee directly invited Olivier and another artist to submit proposals. They selected Olivier’s proposal. Her work, installed in the dome of the vestibule, which one enters before entering the room that houses O’Hanlon’s mural, covers the domed ceiling in gold leaf. Interspersed on the gold field are black and Native American figures from O’Hanlon’s mural and as well as four portraits of influential black and Native American Kentuckians. A quotation from Frederick Douglass is displayed around its edge.


What the U. of Kentucky Did About a Controversial Campus Fresco Depicting Slavery, By Claire Hansen AUGUST 14, 2018

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

Confronting the Past in Pain[t, OCTOBER 7, 2016 BY NCAC STAFF

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