Yesterday, I was disappointed and disturbed to see a prominently-displayed sign in Zimmerman Library, cite Kenneth Adams’ “Three Peoples Murals” as inspiration for the choice of colors in the planned Library Learning Commons area. Commissioned in 1939, and located in Zimmerman’s West Wing, the “Three Peoples Murals” are regarded by many today as having racist and sexist overtones, and as trivializing, and even celebrating the European conquest of the American Southwest, and the continuing oppression of non-white people in our state.
After much controversy in the 1970s, UNM agreed to install a modest sign near the panels, which explains that that they appear “dated,” and stand today to “serve as a teaching device,” a token gesture that I believe does not go far enough. Short of removing the panels entirely, the University must do more to distance itself from the works, and certainly should not cite them as informing a core “design principle” for campus aesthetics. The University’s desire to “visually connect the Learning Commons to the historic West Wing using color and texture,” shows that the University is not serious about addressing the legacy of racism and discrimination here, embodied so vividly in such artworks.
The “Three Peoples Murals” should be properly regarded as an embarrassment to the University, not an inspiration. Just as the Soviet Union underwent a process of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev, and West Germany embarked on a process of de-Nazification in the immediate postwar years, I propose we begin a process of de-colonization here in the United States.
Removing the “Three Peoples Murals” would be a long overdue start. Barring that, we must do more to properly regard the murals for what they really are, relics from a shameful racist past, and not a source of aesthetic inspiration for future construction projects.