In the summer of 2020, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Kelly Latimore, a white artist who grew up surrounded by images of a white Jesus, decided to make a course correction. He’d paint the Virgin Mary and Jesus with gold halos encircling their heads — and both would be Black.
Also, his image of Jesus would resemble Floyd, a Black man who had been killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The painting, titled “Mama,” attracted little notice in February after a copy was installed at the law school of the Catholic University of America in Washington. But in November, The Daily Signal, a conservative website, published an article about the work and about the university’s recently published report on diversity and inclusion, and students created a petition calling for its removal. That month, the painting was stolen.
The university replaced it in November with a smaller copy — the school’s policy was “not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community,” the university’s president, John H. Garvey, said in a statement after the theft — but now that copy, too, has been stolen. And the student government has passed a resolution calling for further displays of the work on campus to be banned, citing religious objections.
The debate over whether a private institution has the right to display or remove work that some students find offensive is one that has rippled across the country in recent years. In 2019, students at Mary Baldwin University, a private liberal arts college in Staunton, Va., objected to an art exhibition in a university gallery that included Confederate imagery. The show was closed within 48 hours of its premiere. And earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Vermont Law School could cover two murals that some students considered racist.
While Garvey had initially defended the decision to display the work, he apologized in a statement on Monday for the “confusion” the painting had created and pledged to think carefully about how to replace it. (An investigation into both thefts is ongoing, the university said.)
“Many saw the figure in the arms of Our Lady as a divinized George Floyd,” the statement said. “This interpretation led to accusations that the work was blasphemous, something that is contrary to the respect due God and his holy name. Regardless of your interpretation, it created needless controversy and confusion, for which I am sorry.”
The law school has taken the stance that the painting depicts Jesus, not Floyd, pointing to religious symbols such as the Greek letters in the halo that signify the divinity of Jesus. But Latimore has said it was created to mourn Floyd’s death.
Blayne Clegg, a student at the university, told Inside Higher Ed earlier this month that the painting was offensive because “Christ has been equated to another specifically identifiable human being.”
Latimore, 35, said he always responds “yes” when asked whether the painting depicts Jesus or Floyd.
“It’s not an either-or scenario,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “Is it George Floyd? Yes. Is it Jesus? Yes. There’s sacredness in every person.”
The artist said someone from the university requested to print the piece for the chapel earlier this year — and that he granted permission free of charge. When asked whether the university has a formal review process for artwork and, if so, whether “Mama” went through it, a university spokeswoman, Karna Lozoya, said that the university “does not currently have an art policy.”
The campus ministry office, which gave the painting to the law school in February, did not respond to a request for comment.
After the second copy of the painting was stolen earlier this month, the student government passed a resolution calling for the removal of any images of “Mama” from university buildings, calling the work “blasphemous, offensive and at the very least confusing.” It asked the university to replace the paintings with work that would “bring forth representation of the African American community in a nonpolitical and uncontroversial way.”
Garvey, the university president, said in the statement on Monday that the wall outside the law school chapel would remain blank while the university considered a replacement.
Nicholas Perez, a program manager at PEN America, a free-speech organization, praised the university’s decision to quickly replace the artwork after the initial theft. But the student resolution to ban the painting and the university’s decision not to defend the artwork were concerning, he said.
“The university should be trying to put the painting back up with haste,” he said. “To have it stolen without replacement looks like an act to chill freedom of expression on campus.”
Latimore, who has painted inspirational Black figures such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, said in an interview in April with The Christian Century magazine that in “Mama,” he made a decision to change the traditional Pietà style to call attention to “prayer and action.” Rather than looking at the body of Jesus, the Virgin Mary is looking at the viewer.
“She’s asking, ‘What are you going to do so this doesn’t keep happening?’” Latimore said.