Visual Arts

New 21c public artwork addresses race, Confederate statue debate

Shawn Gannon photographed the Rev. Brian Cole, rector for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, left, and Adrian Wallace, vice president of Lexington-Fayette NAACP, during an unveiling of "Unlearn Fear + Hate" in front of 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington.
Shawn Gannon photographed the Rev. Brian Cole, rector for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, left, and Adrian Wallace, vice president of Lexington-Fayette NAACP, during an unveiling of "Unlearn Fear + Hate" in front of 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington.

Artists Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova’s latest work didn’t wind up where it’s located by accident.

“We wanted something that would directly address the monuments,” Gohde said standing on Upper Street between the old Lexington Courthouse, which boasts statues of two Civil War figures, and the 21c Museum Hotel where his and Todorova’s work boasts the Frank X Walker quote, “Unlearn Fear + Hate,” which is the name of the piece.

Gohde was part of an arts review board that recommended last year that the statues of Confederate military figures John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge be removed from the courthouse property. Opponents of the statues said it is inappropriate to have the Confederate figures in a place of honor, particularly next to Cheapside, where slaves were auctioned, and that they revere a racist past. Proponents of the statues and Confederate war symbols maintain they represent history, not racism.

In February, Mayor Jim Gray announced the statues would not be removed, but he wanted to provide a more historical context for the works and add more artwork to the courthouse property to represent Lexington’s diversity.

At the unveiling Thursday, Gohde and Adrian Wallace, vice-president of the Lexington NAACP, expressed disappointment the statues were not removed.

“It broke my heart that the mayor commissioned this arts review council to get a recommendation on what to do with these statues,” Wallace said to the crowd assembled for the opening.

Gohde and Todorova, who have been behind Lexington art events such as The Lexington Tattoo Project, went about creating an art work to continue a conversation they felt was not resolved in discussions about the statues. They said their intention was not to point fingers or advocate a point of view, but to foster understanding between all sides.

“We wanted to create an artwork that dealt with this conversation and allowed people to talk about it without being caught in an immovable place,” Gohde said at the unveiling.

Todorova said, “Art is really powerful, and art can reach people in a way that rational conversation and public forums cannot.”

The work, described as a 4-foot-wide stainless steel halo, is designed to propel the conversation where many take place today, through social media. The artists intend for people to have their picture taken in front of the work, surrounded by the words from Walker’s poem, and then share them on social media sites with the hashtag #unlearnfearandhate.

“We are hopeful that by sharing photographs and sharing these photographs and also sharing what people are fearful of, will allow ourselves to be humanized for other people, because once you realize someone is just as afraid as you are, and maybe they’re afraid of you and you’re afraid of them, that can really work to change hearts and minds,” Todorova said at the event.

Alice Gray Stites, 21c Museum director and chief curator, said she was excited for the hotel to become part of the conversation.

“The placement of the art is what is going to create the dialogue between the past and the present,” Stites said. “It’s a three-dimensional wall sculpture, but it is not static, because it does engage people physically on the street to come and take their picture, talk to one another, they’ll have a shared experience, and they’ll be able to share it broadly on social media and connect in a very 21st century way.”

The artwork will be displayed at 21c into February, and then it will move. There is also a Spanish-language version of the sculpture now displayed at the Village Branch of the Lexington Public Library that will also move around the city. Todorova said that they would also be selecting photos taken in front of the sculpture for prominent display on the sides of buildings at North Limestone and Third Street and Main Street near Midland Avenue.

Brian Cole, rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, said he hopes that sculptures will create an enduring conversation about race in Lexington.

“So often in our country, something happens, some atrocity, some disaster, and then we say we hope this will create a space for a conversation, and then we move on to the next news cycle,” Cole said. “For it to come out of art does create a space for a more durable conversation.”

Rich Copley: 859-231-3217, @LexGoKY

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