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Will more art help explain UK’s controversial mural? These two artists have a plan.

UK has selected two national artists to present their ideas about how to contextualize the mural in Memorial Hall, which has offended numerous groups over the years because of its depictions of slaves and native Americans.
UK has selected two national artists to present their ideas about how to contextualize the mural in Memorial Hall, which has offended numerous groups over the years because of its depictions of slaves and native Americans. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Two nationally recognized artists will come to the University of Kentucky this month to publicly present their ideas for art that might contextualize a controversial mural in Memorial Hall that has drawn complaints from black students and faculty.

The proposals of Karyn Olivier and Bethany Collins will mark the final step in a selection process started in 2015 when UK President Eli Capilouto shrouded the fresco following complaints about artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s depiction of slaves and native Americans in her 1934 fresco about the founding of Lexington. A group of students who met with Capilouto said the mural was one of many issues that concerned them, including diversity, financial aid, retention and achievement gaps.

The mural, which was commissioned as part of the Public Works of Art project of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, covers one wall of the lobby of Memorial Hall, UK’s most iconic building on campus. The fresco was uncovered in March 2017, when officials added a written commentary on the piece’s history, concerns voiced over the years, and issues surrounding public art.

At the time, Capilouto appointed the UK Memorial Hall Art Committee to find additional works of art to contextualize the mural.

The committee is looking for art that engages on issues of history, race, identity, culture and diversity.

“No single artwork will address all of the ideas and emotions that people have about the mural at Memorial Hall,” said Stuart Horodner, co-chair of the committee and director of the UK Art Museum. “What we want is a thoughtful new work that can expand the conversation about the legacies of Kentucky and the United States, and for something commissioned in 2018 to address the complexities of identity and place in the past as well as the present.”

UK student Rashad Bigham talks about UK's decision to cover up a controversial mural at Memorial Hall.

Olivier, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, is a multimedia artist who teaches at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Her works have been shown at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Studio Museum of Harlem, and she is the recipient of numerous fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is currently part of a public art project in Philadelphia called Monument Lab, which will “reconsider the function of public monuments in the city.”

Bethany Collins also explores race and identity in her work, which has been featured in the High Museum of Art, the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem, where she also served as an artist in residence. In 2015, she was awarded the Hudgens Prize, a $50,000 award for artists from Georgia, and has had numerous fellowships.

Olivier will make her proposal on Tuesday, March 20 in Memorial Hall from 3 p.m. to 4:40 p.m. Collins’ presentation will follow a week later on March 29 at the same time. Both talks are free and open to the public, and will be followed by a Q&A.

In addition, both artists will meet with the committee members, faculty and students, as well as several of the students who originally met with Capilouto in 2015.

“This is an important step forward in building and sustaining an inclusive campus community,” said Terry Allen, committee co-chairman and associate vice president for institutional equity. “The O’Hanlon mural in Memorial Hall has greeted thousands of students and guests visiting the facility for over 80 years. Our goal is to provide a proper context for the artwork, to tell a complete story. We are hopeful for broad campus participation during the visits of these artists, and value the feedback of every individual.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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