Student uses art to protest planned demolition of FAMU swimming pool

Florida A&M student Obiefuna Okoli shows off some of his artwork on the walls of the abandoned swimming pool at the FAMU campus in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

Florida A&M student Obiefuna Okoli shows off some of his artwork on the walls of the abandoned swimming pool at the FAMU campus in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

PA

Obiefuna Okoli knows it’s too late to change Florida A&M University’s plans to turn an abandoned on-campus pool into a parking lot — but he’s determined to make his feelings public.

More than 40 years ago, Florida A&M University launched its eight-lane, 50-meter-long, Olympic-size swimming pool in the heart of campus near Gaither Gymnasium. For the next 25 years it was considered a gem where swimming lessons, competitions and summer programs were held.

But in 2007, the pool was closed, for reasons including structural damage and no longer meeting NCAA regulations.

After five years without a pool, FAMU renovated its other six-lane pool in 2013. This week, the university began demolishing the surrounding structures of the Olympic-sized pool – a decision Okoli, a junior engineering technology student electronics and lifeguard at the FAMU aquatic center, finds it frustrating.

Okoli sees the removal of the old swimming pool as a loss for the university; the Olympic-size swimming pool was once an asset to swimmers in the community.

Okoli’s dual passion for art and swimming began to align in November when he walked from his flat on Old Bainbridge Road, with a bucket of paint in hand, to the abandoned swimming pool opposite from the Lawson Center.

‘I WANTED FAMU TO REMEMBER’

Because he is an aquatic employee, Okoli had access to the old swimming pool. And he took advantage of the open space as a backdrop. After dark, he painted one side of the pool wall red and centered his art on two names painted black.

“I didn’t want the painting to be perfect,” said 21-year-old Okoli. “I wanted it to look like how I felt when I created the mural.”

One of Okoli’s names included in his panels is James Brock, a white motel owner who poured acid into a swimming pool full of black swimmers in St. Augustine during a swimming protest in 1964; No one was hurt. The other is Genesis Holmes, a 13-year-old black boy who drowned in a pond in Hollywood, North Carolina in 2014.

Okoli says he wanted to remind people of the trauma the black community has faced in the past and continues to struggle with when it comes to swimming.

“In a way, I wanted FAMU to feel bad about tearing down the pool,” Okoli said. “I wanted FAMU to remember why this pool is needed.”

Okoli wants the pool to be reopened and put back into service. But that’s unlikely.

Jorge Olaves, director of the FAMU aquatic center and instructor in the department of health, physical education and recreation, explains that even though the pool has been closed since the spring of 2007, the staff have always used the changing rooms, the office lifeguards and an aquatic laboratory surrounding the structure until last December. It was then that they were asked to move before demolition.

“Okoli and a lot of my other employees didn’t like the pool being torn down soon,” Olaves told the Democrat. “They preferred that it be repaired instead.”

But they never took those concerns to the university, he added.

William E. Hudson, Jr., vice president of student affairs at FAMU, was unaware of Okoli’s artistic display.

But soon art will be a thing of the past.

Hudson told the Democrat that demolition of the pool would begin in March to create more parking spaces for students, faculty and staff.

‘A FORM OF EXPRESSION’

Growing up in a strict family in Lagos, Nigeria, Okoli was never allowed to show his expressive side.

He developed his interest in art at an early age but was discouraged from pursuing it by his parents. Her father is a lawyer and her mother is a general manager in a bank.

“Growing up in Nigeria, there is a cultural difference,” Okoli said. “Creating art is looked down upon, so I was always drawing in secret.”

In his teenage years, Okoli found himself in a lot of trouble.

During his senior year of high school, he met a group of artists who encouraged him to stop his rebellious behavior and express himself through art instead. But trouble found him again: he was later expelled from high school for smoking marijuana.

It was at the encouragement of his uncle – Okenwa Okoli, a professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at FAMU-FSU College of Engineering – that he moved to Tallahassee.

It was here that Okoli began to take his artistic abilities seriously, but it wasn’t until the onset of the COVID pandemic that he regularly practiced his skills on clothing, canvas and walls.

Okoli says this mural is the first in a long series. He hopes to finish painting the other side of the historic pool walls before the planned construction begins.

“I think the artwork is cool,” Okoli said. “It takes on a form of expression in its own right.”

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