U. of Kentucky covers mural of settlers 'to respond to the pain that it causes'

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto decided to shroud a controversial mural on campus in order “to respond to the pain that it causes” after a group of students came to him with frustrations late last month.

The 1934 mural painted by the late Ann Rice O’Hanlon, a Kentucky graduate, depicts black workers in a tobacco field and a Native American carrying a tomahawk. The piece occupies a wall inside Memorial Hall, a historic building on campus honoring those who lost their lives in World War I.

“A product of the 1930s perspective of the artist and her times, we are left today with the task of confronting the unsettling questions it raises for our sense of community,”Capilouto wrote in a blog post on Nov. 23 in regards to the controversial mural. “It is a point of deeply held concern for two dozen black and African American students who talked with me and other members of the University administration two weeks ago.”

University administration hopes to find a permanent solution to the mural in the coming months. Removing the mural entirely from Memorial Hall is not a possible solution because O’Hanlon painted directly on the wall of the building, rather than on a separate canvas. In the interim, the mural will be covered with a shroud until an agreement can be reached.

“I have already begun discussions with facilities administrators and respected campus leaders in the arts and history. A long-term answer will take some time. But we will reach a resolution that, I trust, is respectful of every perspective,” Capilouto wrote in a November blog post.

Students at the University of Kentucky are upset with how the mural portrays blacks and Native Americans in colonial times. In one scene, the artist painted a Native American threatening a group of settlers at Bryan’s Station, a famous train station in Lexington, Ky. Another scene shows a group of black slaves entertaining white settlers and pulling tobacco from a field.

“One African American student recently told me that each time he walks into class at Memorial Hall he looks at the black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and receives the terrible reminder that his ancestors were enslaved, subjugated by his fellow humans,” Capilouto wrote after discussing the mural with a group of students.

To Capilouto, the mural exaggerates the reality of the colonial era and makes a caricature of African American history.

“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 wrote.

However, Wendell Berry, a relative of O’Hanlon, thinks the mural accurately depicts the historical reality.

“Though I willingly would do so if it were possible, I cannot understand the University of Kentucky’s decision to hide Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s fresco in Memorial Hall. The reason given is only that it shows people doing what they actually did. Black people did work in tobacco fields. Black musicians did play for white dancers. Indians did seriously threaten the settlers at Bryan’s Station,” Berry wrote in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald Leader.

University of Kentucky students have tried to cover up the mural in the past but to no avail. In 2006, a group of student senators passed a resolution to remove the mural, but the then-President Lee Todd thought the mural was an important piece of historical artwork.

Capilouto acknowledged the artistic value of the mural in an interview with The Washington Post, but thinks the current campus climate calls for its removal.

“Our current climate, I think, brings a freshness of perspective,” Capilouto said. “And that’s good.”

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