What a beautiful — literally, beautiful — response to concerns that a New Deal-era mural at the University of Kentucky was racially insensitive to 21st century viewers.
Art begot art, as the Herald-Leader’s Linda Blackford put it, in a way that should make all involved proud — students who voiced concerns, UK President Eli Capilouto who heard their concerns and the committee that recommended artist Karyn Olivier’s proposal.
Olivier describes her “Witness” as a “remix” of images painted in 1934 by Kentuckian Ann Rice O’Hanlon. In it, the enslaved people who built so much of this country’s wealth are elevated above the margins of white-written histories to long overdue prominence — in this case, the newly gold-leafed dome of Memorial Hall which also newly bears the words of Frederick Douglass: “There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”
We suspect that O’Hanlon, a UK grad who died in 1998 after a career teaching art in California, would approve of Olivier’s riff on her creation.
As author and poet Wendell Berry wrote in 2015 when Capilouto ordered the mural temporarily hidden under a white cloth, O’Hanlon worked at a time when “it took some courage to declare so boldly that slaves had worked in Kentucky fields. Nobody would have objected if she had left them out.”
Olivier, who was born in Trinidad, educated at Dartmouth College and is based now in Philadelphia, agreed. She told Blackford that she thinks O’Hanlon was “progressive” and “subversive” in how she depicted black Kentuckians in the state’s history. “It’s so clear she understood the role of slavery here,” Olivier said. “There are almost byzantine layers, but the slaves are front and center.”
Both Olivier and O’Hanlon worked with male colleagues on their Memorial Hall projects. Artist Jay C. Lohmann hand-applied more than 1,000 pieces of gold leaf to the dome creating the kind of sacred space found in Byzantine churches. Sculptor Dick O’Hanlon, who had studied under muralist Diego Rivera, helped his wife create her fresco.
Olivier was paid $30,000 for her commission. O’Hanlon was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project which helped put Americans back to work during the Depression.
We’d be tempted to say that Olivier completed O’Hanlon’s work, except, as this saga shows, history is always being written and rewritten, and art will always beget more art.