The official unveiling of the new unity mural within Eastern Michigan University’s McKenny Hall garnered praise as well as criticism from students.
The mural, designed in collaboration with local artists and recently painted by members of the community, was conceived and created in response to the racial graffiti incident that occurred last fall. An official unveiling took place at 4 p.m. on Feb. 28. Students who worked to make the mural a reality, including co-organizer Steve Kwasny, stood among faculty members and EMU officials to present the artwork.
“What we wanted to do was create an image that was more representative of the community,” he said. “As more organizers came to the table, it expanded out to this [the mural], where we talk about our past, talk about our present and where we want to be in the future.”
Graphic artist student Scott Schlueter was responsible for the design making up the mural, taking into account many project organizer and student suggestions. The project has been in the works since October of 2016, soon after the racial graffiti was discovered.
“I think all of this conversation with this mural and conversation with race relations on campus has been positive,” said Susan Booth, a faculty adviser for the project. “I think of unity as just another way of creating relationships with larger groups of people.”
Booth said the project was entirely student run, with faculty members like her only serving as a resource for questions and advising.
“Steve pulled together a group of like-minded students, and what was interesting to me is it didn’t initially start off as a mural project,” she said. “They did a lot of conversations and listening and they involved – man oh man, everybody on campus.”
The mural begins from one end of the room to the other, transitioning from black, white, and green depictions of history on campus to rainbow color palette. The transition, according to Kwasny, is supposed to representing a brighter and more unified future for EMU.
University president James Smith attended the unveiling, saying the mural was a good reminder to the students of the history as well as the future of EMU.
“This is all about a unity effort, to think about what brings us together and what unites us,” he said. “It tells the story of our history but with unity as the theme.
Robert Shockley, a student who worked on the mural project, said the project would stimulate his thinking from now on when seeing it on the walls of McKenny.
“As someone who really appreciates history and thinks it should be brought to light, this is bringing to light some of the issues that aren’t always talked about,” he said. “Now every time I come in here – it will be a reminder that this is something people face every day that we don’t always think about.”
While many students and faculty alike expressed approval of the mural, not everyone was happy with it. When the floor was opened for students to express their thoughts on the mural, senior student Faith Williams offered a dissenting opinion, explaining how the mural was an example "intent versus impact.”
"I look at this mural, an alleged response to anti-black, racist graffiti, and I can't even label it as passive resistance, because it isn't resistant at all, only passive," she said. "I look at the mural and know this is not for me. This mural is all for you self-proclaimed, well-meaning, white savior allies who came to give yourself a pat on the back."
Soon after, Taylor Amari Little (Tay) followed and said agreed with the same sentiment. She said the mural was a poor response to the blow the racial graffiti caused.
“I know a lot of people love the idea of this mural, especially to express their ally-ship but again, like Faith Williams said in her speech, it’s intent versus impact,” she said. “This really feels like a slap in the face.”
When asked what she would have changed about the project, she said she would have liked to see more accountability.
“Those problems that were being communicated last year were mostly from students of color, and historically we’ve already be subjugated and silenced enough,” she said. “Enough talk about unity – why don’t you just listen to us for once and we wouldn’t have to continue expressing these sentiments that are considered negative."
The mural can be seen in the McKenny student lounge by anyone interested. Information sheets about the project, soon to be framed and protected by Plexiglas covers, give some background on the mural.