The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some saw a University of Kentucky mural as racially offensive. Here’s the school’s solution.

Artist Karyn Olivier places part of her piece “Witness” on the domed ceiling of the atrium at Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky on Aug. 15. (Mark Cornelison/UKphoto)

Nearly three years ago, the University of Kentucky draped sheets over a mural that depicts African American slaves hunched in a field, black musicians playing for white dancers and a Native American threatening a white settler with a tomahawk. University President Eli Capilouto said at the time that he worried that the 1934 fresco, viewed through contemporary eyes, “sanitizes history” and glosses over the “brutality, pain and suffering” that slavery imposed. Cloaking the mural, he said, would buy time for the campus community in Lexington to determine what to do next.

It was another moment of reckoning for higher education leaders as they wrestle with how the nation’s painful racial history is portrayed — and sometimes whitewashed — on college campuses.

Now, Kentucky has an answer to the problem of the mural for those who gaze on it in Memorial Hall: Look up.

Last week, artist Karyn Olivier finished installing a work meant to complement the mural that Kentucky alumna Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted during the Great Depression. The interior dome in the atrium of the hall, slightly more than 26 feet off the ground at its peak and 16 feet in diameter at the base, is now covered in gold leaf and imagery of selected figures of people of color rendered in a style echoing O’Hanlon’s.

A quote from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass encircles the piece: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” One message Olivier hopes that her work will convey: “Elevate the oppressed.” On the ceiling near the dome she also installed silhouettes and portraits of a Cherokee chief and three African Americans important to the state’s history.

Olivier called the work “Witness,” choosing a word that was both noun and verb. Her job as an artist, she said, is to start a conversation. She said she found the O’Hanlon mural “beautiful” despite a “lack of nuance” and the absence of horrific detail regarding what slaves endured. In some ways, Olivier said, the mural appears to be “pretty progressive and potentially radical.” Among the key parts of O’Hanlon’s composition, she noted, were the figure of a white man with a gun pointed in the air and a railroad carrying white passengers as slaves toil nearby. As an artist, Olivier said, the idea of removing the mural made no sense.

Olivier, 50, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Trinidad, said it also sent an important signal that the university gave the commission to a black Caribbean American artist.

The mural, displaying various scenes from the state’s history, is 38 feet wide and 11 feet tall and was painted on plaster laid by the artist’s husband, Dick O’Hanlon. Writer Wendell Berry, a Kentucky alumnus related to the O’Hanlons by marriage, defended the mural in 2015 in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. He wrote that for an artist working in 1934, “it took some courage to declare so boldly that slaves had worked in Kentucky fields. Nobody would have objected if she left them out.”

Although the image of the tomahawk-wielding Native American in the mural struck some on campus as a racist stereotype, Berry wrote that “Indians did seriously threaten settlers” on the Kentucky frontier.

The university kept the O’Hanlon mural cloaked from November 2015 to March 2017. The resolution to the issue — commissioning a complementary work of art but leaving the controversial original intact — contrasts with what has happened on some other campuses.

Last year Duke University removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a chapel entrance after it was vandalized. (The university this month decided to leave the space where the statue stood vacant as a reminder of the moment of historical reckoning.) Also in 2017, Yale University renamed a residential college that had borne the name of a prominent politician and advocate of slavery in the antebellum South, John C. Calhoun. The College of William & Mary in 2015 removed a plaque honoring Confederate soldiers from its iconic Wren Building. At the University of North Carolina, protesters in Chapel Hill this week pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier that critics denounced as a monument to white supremacy. Supporters viewed Silent Sam, as the statue was called, as an important memorial to a chapter of the state’s history.

Many colleges and universities have sought in recent years to come to terms with their ties to slavery and their history of discrimination against African Americans. Founded in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, the University of Kentucky did not admit African American students until 1949.

Capilouto said this month that the 29,500-student public university has begun a new chapter. “We are now a campus becoming more diverse, still working to reconcile our differences and understand our humanity,” he said.

University of Kentucky president talks about race, a mural and reconciliation

The university president said he admires Olivier’s work.

“You walk in and look up, and your eyes are drawn to it,” he said. “It made me focus more clearly on the mural. It sets up a dialogue between the two pieces of art.” He said he was pleased by the debate about the mural and expected it to be ongoing. “We never meant this to be an exclamation point,” he said. “It was supposed to be a comma, that would continue the conversation.”