A series of mural depicting images of sexualized Native Americans and slaves working in a field is hanging on the walls of the Georgia Museum of Art.
Though each of the eight images has a title, the show as a whole is called George Beattie’s Agricultural Murals.
Beattie, an Atlanta-based artist, painted eight murals in 1956 for the Georgia Department of Agriculture building in downtown Atlanta. The murals were featured in the building until 2011.
The entire series has now been donated to the museum, Hillary Brown, the director of communications for the GMOA, said. The four murals on display are on the second floor of the museum.
“There are four that were downstairs in the agriculture building — the four on display — that focus on the history of agriculture, and four that were upstairs that focus on modern agriculture,” she said.
The paintings have been considered by some to be objectionable because of their content, Brown said.
Agriculture commissioner Gary Black decided to remove the murals from the agriculture building when he took office in January 2011, according to the GMOA.
“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,” he said.
Brown said she believes part of the problem is the murals depict slavery in a non-negative light. The slaves look healthy and are not in shackles or being whipped. The Native Americans are shown similarly.
The negative aspects of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans are left out.
“Just imagine if you are African-American walking into the department of agriculture and you see a big mural of slavery,” she said. “That isn’t very welcoming.”
Brown said the paintings are better suited in a museum.
Students, like Hussain Punjani, a sophomore political science and international affairs major from Atlanta, agreed.
“I don’t think it should be in an agricultural building,” he said. “Maybe in an art building.”
But some people, like Rebecca Mayo, a sophomore animal health major from Covington, said she doesn’t think the murals are a problem.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s inappropriate because slavery is an aspect of history everyone should be aware of,” she said. “I don’t think it’s bad as long as [hanging them up] isn’t promoting it.”
But Mayo said they would be better placed in a museum, even though she believes they are just historical.
“In the department of agriculture, I don’t think they serve as a good welcome at all, but I think in a museum of art, it would be more educational,” she said. “The people who go in there are willing to give them the light of day and consider what they are for.”
Brown said other murals on the subject are more obviously problematic.
“We don’t want to present Beattie as a bad person,” she said. “For 1956, the way he presents American Indians at all and [glorifies] African Americans at all is progressive, but the times have changed.”
Brown said besides potential controversy, the response to the exposition in the museum has been positive.
“George Beattie’s son came to our talk on them, and he is really happy with what we have done,” she said.
Despite debates associated with the images, especially when they were still housed in the agriculture building, Brown said the paintings are an important part of art history. They will be on display in the GMOA until Jan. 6, 2013.
“They are interesting works. They are beautifully painted, the colors are fabulous and the people in them have an amazing gorgeous physicality,” she said. “They do belong in a museum.”