More than a year after a controversial mural at the University of Kentucky was shrouded, its cover was removed Thursday night revealing a new sign that provides context for the painting.
President Eli Capilouto ordered the cover in November 2015 after a group of black students told him the mural was demeaning because of scenes of black workers — possibly slaves — planting tobacco, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk.
The entire mural, which covers one wall of the lobby of Memorial Hall, depicts the history of Kentucky, including explorers on the frontier, horse racing and scenes of downtown Lexington. The black student group also discussed larger concerns about the racial climate on campus.
The mural was created in 1934 by artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon as part of the Public Works of Art Project. The mural is a fresco, which means the paint pigments are mixed into a wet lime plaster, thereby sealed into the wall. O’Hanlon was born in Ashland, but spent most of her career in California.
In addition to the cover, Capilouto created a task force to discuss next steps. That committee, made up of faculty, staff and students, concluded the mural should be shown as a work or art, but should be displayed with more context.
The sign describes the history of the piece, its format and numerous concerns voiced about it over the years. UK also plans on commissioning more public art to be placed in the Memorial Hall lobby.
In a blog post, Capilouto said the mural is now viewed through a modern prism.
“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.”
The sign references numerous campus conversations about public art, including buildings and statues dedicated to slaveholders.
“The mural provides us with the opportunity to build more thoughtful collaborations to ensure diversity and inclusiveness,” the sign says. It also encourages those with comments or questions to go to uky.edu/president/memorialhall.