Roots of Knowledge crosses lines between art and history

Photo by James DurrantReading Time: 2 minutes

A critical view of the stained-glass project

The Roots of Knowledge doesn’t represent most peoples on Earth, according to David Knowlton, professor of behavioral science. The stained glass project has sparked a debate between UVU academics about the historical representation of humankind — from the multicultural figures of the story the mural is telling, to the optimism the panels evoke.

Knowlton, a sociocultural anthropologist, said that the artwork attempts to evoke unity, but that it is the type of unity that is also dismissive. When the panels begin to shift into the medieval era, they lose cultural diversity as the panels have European languages are depicted as centered, while other texts such as the Mayan script are in the corners. “Notice how the only image that goes from bottom to top is the medieval cathedral. That’s a powerful cultural statement.”

The 4.5 million-dollar project was started in 2005 by the artist Tom Holdman and was unveiled at the Fulton Library November of 2016. The 80 panels of stained-glass features how humanity and technology has progressed throughout time.

The images were intended to create a of feeling of inspiration according to Michael Goode, assistant professor of early American history, who has taught courses called, “Violence and Colonialism” and “Religious Toleration and Diversity in America.” He talked about the potential tensions between historical ways of knowing and artistic ways of knowing. “It was conceived as an artistic project. Its intention is to inspire. The academic perspective can be inspiring as well, but in its very nature is also critical and so they’re not always going to fit comfortably,” Goode said.

Goode said that the Roots of Knowledge isn’t just about the United States and that it takes a deliberate global view.

Knowlton talked about how people of color are shown as receiving knowledge, but rarely as the central figure or teacher. “Where are the black women who were mathematicians in NASA?  …… Where are the Mexican authors?” Also the massive chicano cosmic art which becomes a point of reference for the West.”

He said that the main problem is how the dominant position is widely spread, defined and celebrated. The people of color are still structurally marginalized and shown more as conquest and secondary. “Part of what happens with the Inca is that we erase them, we make it more of a tourist thing and then we erase all their knowledge,” Knowlton said. “Even though when the Europeans arrived they were overwhelmed by the knowledge of the Inca.”

He also talked about the quote installed in the mural which says, “A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” By using this contradictory statement, according to Knowlton, the exhibit is actually cutting off the roots of almost all people when people of color are reduced to the margins or to only earlier panels.

Goode said that the exhibit is meant to be open-ended interpretively. “The images are set, but the ways that we interpret those images can change, will change and I’m assuming the university is trying to invite those interpretations,” he said.

Janie Defriez, biology major, said that the mural portrays a very powerful message. She also said that there’s room for improvement and inclusion in terms of the which historical legacies are shown as most important. “I do know there’s a lot of sections from all over the world that are majorly important that aren’t necessarily from English backgrounds,” she said.