A task force at The University of New Mexico (UNM) spent the last year evaluating if four murals in the school’s Zimmerman Library shoud be covered or removed. The Associated Press reports today (October 9) that, based on the group’s recommendation, President Garnett Stokes and Interim Provost Richard Wood officially proposed covering all four of the murals. The final decision rests with the Board of Regents.
The Zimmerman Library notes that former UNM artist-in-residence Kenneth Adams developed the “Three Peoples” murals through the Public Works of Art Project, a federal initiative of the New Deal that employed artists nationwide in 1939. Per former UNM president Joseph Zimmerman’s grant proposal to cofunder Carnegie Corporation, the works were intended to highlight the societal contributions of Indigenous, Latinx and White people. One of them depicts Indigenous artisans, another shows Latinx agricultural and architectural workers, and a third shows White scientists and a doctor. The fourth mural features a blue-eyed White man holding hands with faceless Indigenous and Latinx men.
Indigenous faculty and students have long critiqued the murals for perpetuating White-centered narratives about their communities.
“All who hold positions of power in the state—from UNM administration to politicians, educators and law enforcement—are beholden to the revisionist history that is still hailed as the dominant narrative,” Jennifer Marley of the Kiva Club, an Indigenous student group, told Hyperallergic in 2016. “It conveniently erases the implications of the double conquest suffered by the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico, while silencing ongoing Native resistance efforts.”
“It causes some psychological distress,” Native American studies professor and Kiowa tribe member Robin Starr Minthorn told The AP about the murals’ placement. “You’re always having to walk by there, or you’re sitting in front of it, and you don’t see people representing you who have any facial expressions.”
“The murals themselves present a very racialized perspective of who is in authority,” Glenabah Martinez, a Taos Pueblo and Diné professor and associate dean, added. “It was about the portrayal of how the racial hierarchy works in New Mexico.”
Per a UNM announcement, decades of criticism led to the task force and a course that evaluated the murals’ history and role in campus-wide restorative justice efforts. It also includes a joint statement from the provost and president, who wish to cover the paintings while considering long-term solutions.
“UNM must remain focused on matters of campus climate, equity and inclusion; the status quo is not acceptable,” they said. “We have heard from several faculty, staff and students that the murals make them feel excluded and attacked. We know that many people enjoy the murals, and we remain committed to a solution that ensures that everyone feels welcome at UNM.”
The recommendation is UNM’s latest attempt to address the Indigenous community’s concerns. The AP and Hyperallergic note that student groups protested to eliminate a university seal that depicted a Spanish conquistador and United States frontier settler—both groups who subjugated Indigenous tribes. UNM suspended use of that seal last year.
These groups also pushed the university to officially replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which it formally celebrated for the first time yesterday (October 8).