In 1956, George Beattie, an Atlanta-based artist, painted a series of eight murals that hung at the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s building in downtown Atlanta until 2011. The four that will be on display here address the state’s history of agriculture, beginning with a representation of the American Indians who originally lived in the region and including two that address slavery. When newly elected agriculture commissioner Gary Black took office, he decided to remove the murals from the walls of the building, saying, “I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.” Rather than allow the works to languish in government storage, the museum offered to take them and to mount the display to promote discussion about what the murals portray, how they portray it and why they are controversial.
Undeniably idealized, the figures of the slaves are stoic and muscular, bearing more resemblance to the work of Michelangelo than to reality. The faces of all the people the murals take as their subjects are generalized, and the American Indians (both men and women) wear only loincloths, exposing and sexualizing their bodies. One that focuses on the founding of the state of Georgia, as evident from its inclusion of James Oglethorpe, relegates American Indians to background material, literally receding from view. In an effort to contextualize the murals, the museum has produced a series of short videos, in which academics examine the works’ problematic approach to sensitive issues. James Cobb, Spalding Distinguished Research Professor in the UGA Department of History; Laura Adams Weaver from the UGA Institute of Native American Studies; Valerie Babb, professor of English and African American studies and director of the Institute for African American Studies; and Manoguerra lent their talents to the effort, discussing the context for Beattie’s murals and the complex historical and cultural issues they raised in the 1950s and today. Those videos will be mounted next to the murals for visitors to watch and available on the museum’s YouTube page.