Memorial Hall Mural
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Completed in 1934, the Memorial Hall Mural has been a point of contention on the University of Kentucky’s campus for decades. The mural was designed by artist Ann O’Hanlon who intended to show the history of Kentucky up to the 1930s. Students protested the mural in 2019 with a hunger strike and a sit-in resulting in an announcement that the mural would be covered. In 2020 President Capiluto announced that the mural would be removed, but the process to do so has been stalled by a suit against the university which alleges the school has no right to destroy the fresco.
Backstory and Context
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Created as a part of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1934, the mural in Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky was designed by artist Ann O’Hanlon. The hall itself had been built just five years prior. It was named in honors of Kentuckians who died in World War I; all 2,756 names are displayed in the lobby. The fresco was intended to illustrate the history of Kentucky up to the mural’s creation and today represents one of few true frescoes in the country. O’Hanlon included depictions of white settlers, technological innovations, and several autobiographical references. The technique applied in the painting is similar to that employed by famed fresco artist Diego Rivera. O’Hanlon and Rivera both studied at the California School of Fine Art, though the two were not there at the same time.
However, the most notable aspects of the mural are its depictions of African Americans which have been criticized by the members of the campus community since the 1970s. Many criticisms argue that O’Hanlon’s depictions of African Americans as slaves and segregated is outdated and harmful to black students on campus. Others feel that the mural should be preserved as a historical artifact.
These discussions came to a head and began to receive national attention in 2015 when a group of black students approached University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto to express their concerns about the mural. The students advocated for the removal of the fresco which was covered by the administration for several months while a solution was discussed. Ultimately, university officials in 2016 felt that adding context was necessary for the mural to remain. Philadelphia artist Karyn Olivier was selected to add depictions of the black community that were left out of O’Hanlon’s original design. Olivier added this section to the ceiling as a means of adding context to the piece.
Just three years after this announcement, two student groups on campus, the Basic Needs Campaign and the Black Student Advisory Council presented a list of demands to President Capilouto that included the removal of the mural at Memorial Hall. The students began a sit-in in the campus’s Main Building in April of 2019 and within two days President Capilouto announced that the mural would be covered again. After the death of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests racism and police brutality, President Capilouto announced that the university would move forward with the removal of the mural.
Before progress on the removal began, artist Wendell Berry and his family sued the university to halt the removal. The Berry family argues that the university has no right to remove the piece which was commissioned by the federal government. No specific removal date has been announced, and the mural remains covered and intact today. Likely no progress will be made on the mural until the suit is resolved.
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Eads, Jacob. UK to approve artistic addition to Memorial Hall in hopes of providing balance to controversial mural, June 22nd 2018. Accessed August 30th 2020. http://www.kykernel.com/uk-to-approve-artistic-addition-to-memorial-hall-in-hopes/article_22a64224-765c-11e8-83c9-c77aa97ed36b.html.
Jones, Reinette F. Ann Rice O'Hanlon & The Memorial Hall Mural, UK Libraries. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://libguides.uky.edu/c.php?g=436963.
Ladd, Sarah. How UK students went from hunger strike to campus sit-in, kentuckykernel. April 2nd 2019. Accessed August 30th 2020. http://www.kykernel.com/news/how-uk-students-went-from-hunger-strike-to-campus-sit/article_400c20f0-5580-11e9-9edc-4372ed3c9cd5.html.
Ladd, Sarah. UK to cover Memorial Hall mural after student sit-in, kentuckykernel. April 2nd 2019. Accessed August 30th 2020. Ladd, Sarah. UK to cover Memorial Hall mural after student sit-in, kentuckykernel. April 2nd 2019. Accessed August 30th 2020. http://www.kykernel.com/news/uk-to-cover-memorial-hall-mural-after-student-sit-in/article_6e5b19ae-5597-11e9-b72f-2bd8a2030a53.html..
Stevens, Ashlie Danielle. University of Kentucky Covers Up a Racially Charged Depression-Era Mural Amid Community Debate, Hyperallergic. December 11th 2015. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/260704/university-of-kentucky-covers-up-a-racially-charged-depression-era-mural-amid-community-debate/.
UK President Capilouto says mural of ‘important work of art’ will be placed in a more complete context, Northern Kentucky Tribune. December 7th 2015. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://www.nkytribune.com/2015/12/uk-president-capilouto-says-mural-of-important-work-of-art-will-be-placed-in-a-more-complete-context/.
UK to cover mural depicting slaves, kentuckykernal. November 23rd 2015. Accessed August 30th 2020. http://www.kykernel.com/news/uk-to-cover-mural-depicting-slaves/article_9b7ae156-d1f6-5575-82a1-f7df18ca00dd.html.
Yonker, Rebecca Reynolds. Author Wendell Berry sues to block removal of disputed Kentucky mural; Black artist also wants it to stay, USA Today. July 6th 2020. Accessed August 30th 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2020/07/06/wendell-berry-sues-block-removal-disputed-kentucky-mural/5387221002/.