Education

Cover over controversial mural is short-term solution, UK president says

A mural by Ann Rice O'Hanlon in the lobby of Memorial Hall was covered as University of Kentucky students changed classes in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 30, 2015.
A mural by Ann Rice O'Hanlon in the lobby of Memorial Hall was covered as University of Kentucky students changed classes in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 30, 2015. palcala@herald-leader.com

The University of Kentucky has covered up a controversial mural, but officials say the shroud is temporary until a better resolution can be found.

UK President Eli Capilouto announced last week that a temporary cover would be placed over the 1930s work by artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon in the lobby of Memorial Hall because of concerns brought to him by a group of black students. The cover is accompanied by a placard that explains Capilouto’s reasoning for the short-term fix.

But UK officials say the mural, which is part of the wall, will not be destroyed.

“It is considered by some to be one of the most important works of its kind in the commonwealth,” the placard reads. “However, the audience for this work — and the times in which it was created — have changed dramatically. The University of Kentucky of the 1930s is the not the University of Kentucky of 2015 and beyond. Indeed, the mural was created at a time and in a place when African-American students or faculty were not welcomed on our campus. Fortunately, our community is very different now — compellingly diverse and more complete.”

The mural is a fresco painted as part of the federal Public Works of Art Project. It shows Lexington’s history from its settlement in a series of scenes. In one, black men and women are planting tobacco. At a meeting two weeks ago, a group of black students told Capilouto they found the mural to be demeaning and offensive. Various efforts to remove the mural have been made since at least 2006.

Capilouto has set up an email account at pres@uky.edu to get suggestions for a long-term solution. The challenge, he said, is “acknowledging our history as expressed by important works of art frozen to another time and place and reconciling it with the understanding, complexity and diversity of audiences and perspectives that comprise our university community,” he said. “Our firmest hope is to reach a resolution that is respectful of every perspective.”

This is a teachable moment, and a university should not avoid teachable moments.

Hayward Wilkirson, a graphic artist at UK

Capilouto’s meeting with the group of black students focused on several issues in addition to the mural, including the university’s achievement gap for black students, graduation and retention rates, financial aid, and inclusion and diversity on campus.

The president’s decision to deal with the mural quickly — a move hailed by black students who attended the meeting — also reflects the fraught atmosphere on college campuses around the country, where issues of racial sensitivity are coming to the forefront. At the University of Missouri, for example, students protested administrative inaction over several racist incidents; the president and system chancellor resigned after the football team threatened to strike.

Tanquarae McCadney, a UK student who attended the meeting, said she was pleased by the cover and thought the mural needed to be removed.

“I think art is open to many interpretations, but with this particular piece, it lets African-American students know they don’t have a place besides a tobacco field,” she said. “It makes African-American students feel like they don’t have a place to come and feel comfortable.”

Rashad Bigham, a senior from Louisville who attended the meeting, told the Herald-Leader last week that Capilouto had taken a good first step “toward creating a place where some people don’t have to be reminded about something as horrible as slavery.”

Last week, Hayward Wilkirson, a graphic artist at UK, set up a Facebook page titled Censorship and Sensitivity: Art at the University of Kentucky, to create a place for people to discuss the myriad issues surrounding the mural.

“My goal was to create a place for a lot of difference perspectives,” he said. “This is a teachable moment, and a university should not avoid teachable moments.”

Wilkirson said he was getting more feedback from people worried about possible censorship of art and expression at a public university.

“It makes sense you want to create an environment where all students feel safe, but on the other hand, art is very likely to transgress someone’s boundaries,” he said. “I was simply hoping to have a conversation about that.”

Wilkirson said he hoped UK could find a middle ground, perhaps a scenario in which the mural may be shown with contextual explanation. In addition, he thinks UK could commission a piece of art to be put near the mural by a well-known black artist, such as Kara Walker, whose art constantly explores race, gender, identity and history.

“UK could use sensitivity and creativity to deal with these issues that we see over and over again,” he said.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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