FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Award-winning Kentucky writer Wendell Berry and his wife sued the University of Kentucky on Monday to try to stop the removal of a mural that has been the object of protest for its depictions of Black people and Native Americans.
University President Eli Capilouto announced last month that the mural would be coming down.
The 1930s fresco mural by Ann Rice O’Hanlon shows the history of Lexington in a series of scenes, including Black men and women planting tobacco and a Native American man holding a tomahawk. Efforts to remove the mural have been made since at least 2006.
The lawsuit says Tanya Amyx Berry is a maternal niece of O'Hanlon and her oldest living heir. The lawsuit contends that the university doesn’t have the right to remove the mural since the federal government commissioned O’Hanlon to produce it. The suit says the federal government gave the state limited rights to the artwork and those rights transfer back to the federal government if the state chooses to no longer display it.
It also asks for an injunction to prevent Capilouto from taking any action to remove the mural while the case proceeds.
Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Censorship made public a letter that separately asks the university to halt its plans, saying it would negate the work of Karyn Olivier, a Black artist who created an installation that responds to the mural.
“This is the first instance we are aware of in which the removal of a mural by a white artist will have the simultaneous effect of silencing the work of a Black artist,” said Christopher Finan, coalition director, in a July 1 letter to Capilouto. “We urge you to reconsider your decision to remove the mural and to instead pursue the University’s original goal of engaging in the sustained, difficult and complex conversations that can arise in contemplation of these old and new works.”
The university said in a statement that removing the mural is necessary for the community to heal and does not change history.
“Our respect for Wendell Berry is deep and abiding. His contributions to our state and literature are profound. Moving art, however, is not erasing history. It is, rather, creating context to further dialogue as well as space for healing," school spokesman Jay Blanton said in a statement. "As President Capilouto wrote to our campus last month, after years of community conversation, ‘our efforts and solutions with the mural, for many of our students, have been a roadblock to reconciliation, rather than a path toward healing.’”
Berry, who lives Henry County, is renowned for his poetry novels and essays on sustainable agriculture and other subjects. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by then-President Barack Obama in 2011.