UK to cover controversial mural at Memorial Hall

Controversial UK mural explained

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

In 2006, senators of the University of Kentucky’s student government passed a resolution to remove a mural in Memorial Hall that showed scenes of state history, including black workers in a tobacco field, black musicians playing for white dancers, and a Native American with a tomahawk. They told then-President Lee Todd that it was degrading to ethnic and racial groups.

But others, including Todd, believed the mural — a fresco painted into the wall in 1934 by artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon as part of the Public Works of Art Project— was an important historical and artistic artifact.

The mural “is a statement of history, not a statement about our current values as an institution,” Todd said in a statement at the time. “It would be wrong to remove this work of art, just as it would be wrong to stop including in our history classes the terrible ramifications of slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans.”

Two weeks ago, another group of UK students met with another UK president, Eli Capilouto, in part about the mural. This time, he agreed, and on Monday, said the work would be covered up until a more permanent solution can be found. The mural was painted directly into the plaster, so removing it to another location, such as a museum, will be complicated. An explanation of the cover will be placed nearby, Capilouto said.

“The frustrations they raised have been voiced by so many other members of our community and beyond it: that their University — our University — is willing to sustain a work of art that they find to be a painful and degrading personification of a false, romanticized rendering of our shared history,” Capilouto said in a blog post he published Monday.

The irony is that artistic talent actually painted over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering.

Eli Capilouto, University of Kentucky President

Capilouto said that one black student told him that every time he goes to class at Memorial Hall, he is reminded that his ancestors were slaves.

“Worse still, the mural provides a sanitized image of that history,” Capilouto wrote. “The irony is that artistic talent actually painted over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering.”

Rashad Bigham was one of the students who met with Capilouto on a host of issues facing black students at UK, including inclusion, financial aid, retention and achievement gaps.

“I think the president has done a very good job voicing our concerns,” said the senior from Louisville. “This is a good first step toward creating a place where some people don’t have to be reminded about something as horrible as slavery.”

Bigham said the mural is one piece of a much larger conversation, “the first time African-American students were able to sit down eye to eye with the president and have real conversation. He really heard us and his steps have shown his sincerity.”

Historical narratives, perspectives and cultural sensitivity have changed a lot since 2006, and even since June of this year, when a white supremacist opened fire in a black church in South Carolina, killing nine parishioners. That prompted a round of soul-searching that ended in a reconsideration of historical, particularly Confederate symbols, and resulted in South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from its capitol.

Kentucky lawmakers debated removing a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda, a move ultimately rejected by a historical commission. In Lexington, another commission has recommended moving Confederate statues out of the old courthouse plaza.

Debates over race have intensified on college campuses. At the University of Missouri, the president and system chancellor delayed in dealing with racial problems and concerns. A threatened strike by the football team led to the officials’ resignations and new deference to student concerns.

Also on Monday, Berea College, once the only integrated institution in the state, held a community event to stand firm against recent incidents of hostility toward students of color. Last Thursday, Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson sent out a campus email on the importance of diversity and inclusion. Last month, University of Louisville officials apologized over a released photo of President James Ramsey and his staff wearing stereotypical Mexican sombreros and mustaches for a Halloween party.

Capilouto, who is Jewish and grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement, said the mural was painted at a time when there were no students or faculty of color at UK, before diversity was considered an educational value.

“In spite of the artist's admirable, finely honed skill that gave life to the mural, we cannot allow it to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit,” he wrote.

Anna Brzyski, a UK art history professor originally from Poland, said changing societal values often change public art.

“In Eastern Europe when communism fell, the first things to go were the first visible symbols, statues of Lenin and Marx,” she said. “It’s not something without historic precedent that a society engages in soul-searching about images produced in the past.

“Personally, I’m very heartened by the fact that we’re having these conversations— it’s preferable for students to pay attention to what’s around them, than to be apathetic and not understand the implications of what’s around them,” she said. “The fact they’re engaged is a positive step forward.”

Bigham said he fully expects a backlash to Capilouto’s decision, but he thinks it’s important to remember that black students weren’t allowed at UK for many years of its existence, and that black students still can feel unwelcome.

“We did not have the right to be here,” Bigham said. “Now that you call yourself diverse, you can’t offend people by having this painting here.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford