Context key to fully appreciate art and artist’s intent

In 1934, Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted her fresco to re-think stories of Kentucky’s past through artistic expression. At the all-white University of Kentucky, during the Depression in the Jim Crow South, it would have been acceptable simply to omit representations of the black and Native American people who sacrificed body and soul for this land, and deny both their role in this country’s history and, worse, their very existence. Instead, she included these representations.

She painted slaves in the field and musicians playing for a white audience, not to deny black identity in Kentucky’s history, but to include it and give it legitimacy. That identity -- subjugated field hand, and entertainer -- is painful. The fact that she, a white woman, is giving black identity legitimacy is troubling in our current cultural climate. Today, individual and institutional racism are still pervasive. But we must acknowledge her attempt to consider and re-think a whole story of Kentucky’s past in the context of her own time.

If O'Hanlon's mural remains shrouded or is removed, the university becomes complicit in propagating the denial of beauty and identity in black experience and visual culture. The problem with the work is context. Some of those offended decry the “sanitized” imagery of the mural in light of actual atrocities perpetrated against black slaves and Native Americans during the nation’s early history.

Others decry the acute reminder of their ancestors’ painful and storied individual histories. Both parties have reasonable claims, but both ignore the context of the mural’s creation — the intentions of O’Hanlon both to present a whole history of Kentucky and to do so in what was, in 1934, a bold and sensitive way.

The context of the mural is problematic, and the best response the university could have is both to educate its audience and to re-contextualize the fresco. The university should let it stand and accompany it with a more contemporary work by an African-American artist who could bring a necessary, important, personal perspective to the conversation.

We must give the community the opportunity to know and learn the complete story behind O’Hanlon’s piece — the role of the Works Progress Administration, the cultural climate of 1930s Kentucky, the artist’s biography, her relationship to the African American community of Lexington, and her intentions for the work. If we fail to educate our students, we fail them.

Dana Clark is an instructor at the University of Kentucky School of Arts and Visual Studies.

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