Monday, August 6, 2012
Athens Banner-Herald article
From Sunday's Athens Banner-Herald: Controversial murals find new home, and context, at art museum
By Andre Gallant updated Saturday, August 4, 2012 - 5:17pm
For 55 years, a series of murals painted by Atlanta artist Georgie Beattie depicting Georgia’s agricultural history hung in the state’s Department of Agriculture building.
Framed into marble walls, idealized images of Native Americans harvesting corn and slaves working cotton through a gin drew scattershot complaints during their tenure in the Atlanta ag offices. But in 2010, when a new agriculutural commissioner took office after a 41-year run by his predecessor, the incoming boss decided they needed to go.
“I don’t like those pictures,” agricultural commissioner Gary Black, who ordered their removal, said at the time. “I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.”
As of Aug. 1, the Beattie murals will hang prominently at the Georgia Museum of Art.
In a news release, museum officials said they felt it important to preserve “this aspect of Georgia’s history.”
“There are not that many opportunities to acquire and to study beautiful, large, commissioned paintings by important Georgia artists that deal with subject matter specific to Georgia,” explained Paul Manoguerra, curator of American art at GMOA, in a follow-up email. “Let alone works created for a public space in an official state of Georgia building.”
The murals are split into two sections: one an historical portrait of Georgia’s agricultural history; the other showing modernization and scientific progress in the field.
Manoguerra said Beattie must have asked himself three questions as an artist: How do I depict the history of agriculture in the state of Georgia? What do I show, and what do I omit completely?
While idealizing the slave physicality, the murals’ representation of slavery omitted the brutal beatings and general hardship experienced by those who endured the peculiar institution.
In interviews, Beattie stated vehemently his opposition to slavery, but friends admitted the artist was an optimist who painted over reality.
Still, Manoguerra explained in a video accompanying the murals that there are progressive yet subtle political opinions embedded in the images. The videos are part of an effort to contextualize Beattie’s murals, a move necessary to the murals’ “problematic approach to sensitive issues.”
An antebellum mansion, for example, appears stable but only for the strength of a slave’s back. For the 1950s, the heroic rendering of pre-Colombian Native Americans was ahead of its time, according to the curator.
But beside these idealized Michelangelo-esque laborious physiques kneel non-descript, unglorified slave women, points out Valerie Babb, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for African American Studies, in the same video series produced in conjunction with the murals’ new unveiling.
Their bodies offer no complexity, she said. They aren’t unlike the trees, rocks or land.
In the pre-European contact panel, both male and female Native American figures appear exposed and heavily sexualized.
“As the official state art museum at the state’s flagship university, the museum seems to me to be the perfect place to provide the context for, and the opportunity for dialogue about, the images that some saw as lacking when they were at the Department of Agriculture building,” Manoguerra wrote in the email.
Joining Babb and Manoguerra in delivering this context are James Cobb, a professor of history at UGA, and Laura Adams of the UGA Institute of Native American Studies.
In the modern portions of the murals, blacks aren’t found in the laboratories Beattie painted.
Again, in the accompanying video, Babb asked what does that omission reveal about the way we as a culture, as a society, have changed?
“The default American identity is a white identity,” Babb said.
The murals will be displayed through Jan. 7.