UK argues prominent Kentucky author has no say in university's decision to remove controversial mural

University of Kentucky
Posted at 1:42 PM, Jun 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-23 13:42:39-04

Legal counsel for the University of Kentucky claims Kentucky author Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya have no say in the university's decision to remove or alter a controversial mural in Memorial Hall.

In a lawsuit filed last year, the Berrys claim that the mural was created through a government program and is owned by the people of Kentucky, therefore, UK President Eli Capiluoto does not have the right to make a decision to remove it.

But UK argued that the mural is not a matter of "public trust," but rather a piece of government speech, which means the university is able to make decisions about the conveyed message.

UK also claims the Berrys cannot intervene due to lack of standing and failure to state a claim in their initial lawsuit.

The mural, painted by Tanya Berry's aunt in 1934, has drawn criticism from Black students because of its depictions of enslaved people.

The mural isn't the only artwork that would be affected by its removal. In 2018, UK commissioned artist, Karyn Olivier, to create a companion piece designed to confront the problematic mural and spark a dialogue. She said it can be used as a tool to understand our complicated history.

Her piece reproduces the images of the African slaves and places them in a gold-leafed meant to symbolize their elevation to the divine and reinforce the notion, or possibility, of rebirth.

Olivier told LEX 18 in 202 that the artwork, titled "Witness", wouldn't work without the mural.

"My piece becomes mute," Olivier said. "It's rendered void, in a way. It can't work without the past it seeks to confront. That means my piece is just over. It doesn't work on its own."

UK has said that its decision to move the art piece would not be "erasing history," but rather "creating context to further dialogue as well as space for healing."

A hearing on UK’s efforts to dismiss the case is scheduled for July 21.