Controversial slavery mural gets new home

A controversial mural depicting slavery that until recently greeted visitors to the Georgia Department of Agriculture will be back on display starting in August.

The Georgia Museum of Art, located on the University of Georgia campus, has rescued the painting — part of a series of murals produced by Atlanta-based artist George Beattie in 1956 chronicling the state's agricultural history — from a state storage facility and will debut the collection Aug. 1.

"As the official state museum of art and as an academic institution, the Georgia Museum of Art believed it was important to preserve this aspect of Georgia's history," said Paul Manoguerra, the museum's chief curator of American art. "The murals present one artist's attempt to address the complex history of agriculture in our state in 1956."

The most controversial painting in the series, a seemingly benign portrait of slaves picking cotton while an overseer weighs their bags, formerly graced the wall behind a visitor's sign-in at the state agriculture building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It seemed to many to be out context, at best, in a government facility and was removed along with the other murals in 2011 by newly elected agriculture commissioner Gary Black, who said at the time, "I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture."

The museum will feature the murals — which also depict Native Americans, mainly as background characters — along with video narratives by academics examining the "the works' problematic approach to sensitive issues," according to a statement.

"I don't think you learn anything by hiding history," said Valerie Babb, a professor of English and African-American studies at UGA tapped to provide commentary on the murals. "I think it's very important to have conversations both about why these panels were painted in the first place and why they were taken down as well as what that reveals about the way we as a culture and a society have changed."