Renowned Kentucky author and poet Wendell Berry and his wife sued the University of Kentucky on Monday over its plan to remove a century-old mural containing controversial images of black and Native American people.
The lawsuit seeks to prevent the university from “taking any action on [university president Eli Capilouto’s] vague public announcement to remove or take down” the mural and an associated piece of art near it.
The lawsuit cites several reasons why the artwork should stay up: the federal commission of the artwork in 1930; the difficulty of painting a Mexican-style fresco; the fact that the painting is plastered on the wall and removing it would do irreparable damage to the artwork; and the painting’s established “non-racist purpose.”
Wendell Berry’s wife, Tanya Berry, is the niece and oldest living heir of artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon, who painted the mural.
O’Hanlon painted the mural, commissioned during the Great Depression through a federal program called the Public Works of Art Project, in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky.
Her purpose was to depict a uniquely “American scene,” conveying the American way of life while paying homage to the history of Kentucky and acknowledging the social and racial inequities in society during that time, according to the university website.
The mural has caused controversy among many UK students for its depiction of black individuals working in a field and a Native American holding a tomahawk.
In response to these concerns, the university commissioned a black artist to paint another mural in 2018 across from O’Hanlon’s existing piece.
UK President Eli Capilouto wrote in an open letter in early June that “[our] efforts and solutions with the mural, for many of our students, have been a roadblock to reconciliation, rather than a path toward healing. That’s not a criticism. It is a statement of fact and, I hope, understanding.”
“The mural once again was a symbol, not of a state’s evolution, but of our unwillingness to recognize [African-American] experiences as members of our community,” he wrote.
In response to the Berrys’ lawsuit, the University of Kentucky released a statement on Monday acknowledging Berry’s contribution to art and literature and the state of Kentucky, but added that “moving art … is not erasing history. … It is, rather, creating context to further dialogue as well as space for healing.”
The mural has another supporter in Karyn Olivier, the artist who painted another mural in response to the O’Hanlon piece, according to the university’s website.
In an open letter to UK students in April, Olivier said that “erasing and (in effect) defacing a work of art is a less powerful gesture than confronting what is there.”
“We must dissect and critique our American histories, shed light on what’s hidden/buried, and expose this complicated landscape for all to investigate and interrogate.”
An important op-ed from the artist Karyn Olivier, a 2019 #RomePrize Fellow, on the removal of a mural at the University of Kentucky on which her companion artwork in the same building, “Witness,” is based https://t.co/h0dexwPe1f @ICAPhiladelphia @TylerSchool pic.twitter.com/bUgJuBQG7a
— AmericanAcademyRome (@AmAcademyRome) July 7, 2020
The University of Kentucky has not yet announced a timeline for removing the Memorial Hall mural.
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