The University of Kentucky has had more than one issue from students and staff over a mural that many students have petitioned to have removed. The mural depicts a collection of Kentucky’s history and according to a recent New York Times article, students have denounced the mural as a racist sanitizing of history and a painful reminder of slavery in a public setting.
The mural commissioned in 1934, was a full wall length fresco style piece that Ann Rice O’Hanlen, with a blending of historical images recounting decades of Kentucky history. In the dead center, a view of African American slaves in a tobacco field, each historical scene sharing moments in history, including the division and segregation of the black community from the white at the train station, and a racist depiction of a Native American man with a tomahawk poised to attack a white woman.
For over 5 years the University has sought to come to some kind of resolution that doesn’t remove the historical piece from University grounds. However, in the wake of the death of George Floyd and primarily white educational institutions being openly called out for years of systemic racism in their schools, the University of Kentucky had decided to pull the mural down.
The decision to remove the mural seemed sound, but a now pending lawsuit by Kentucky residents delays any action from the University of Kentucky, the defendant, Wendell Barry, claims the mural belongs to the people as it was commissioned by the government. In light of the pending suit, another artist may be requesting her work be pulled down as well. Black artist, Karyn Olivier was commissioned to create a counter mural in response to the mural in question. Her piece titled “Witness” shares a vision of Black and Native Americans floating above a gold leaf, almost as if they had become divine beings. “My work is dependent on that history,” Ms. Olivier said in an interview. The University’s decision to remove the controversial mural creates censorship of her own work.
Whatever the decision made, you can bet that Anti-Censorship advocates will be monitoring the outcome of this mural. What happens in this case could be the weight measured against future historical monuments and murals. With art of this nature in jeopardy of being destroyed or concealed, the thin line between artistic expression and malicious intent continues to blur. We can be certain that more and more of these “grey” areas will rise as the world continues to make sense out of the unresolved and continued systemic pandemic of racism still infecting American’s every single day.