Three years ago, Mercer University commissioned Joerael Numina to paint a mural on the side of Indigo Salon & Spa on Coleman Avenue. The mural, titled “Cultivating New Tones on the Spectral Stage of History,” featured prominent figures from Black history, including Sam Oni, a Ghanan missionary convert who became the first black student to attend Mercer in 1963.
Tuesday morning, Mercer’s administration unexpectedly replaced Numina’s mural — not with new art, but with solid white paint.
Numina was invited to paint the mural in 2017 by the College Hill Art Alliance, Art in the Park, and Mercer’s women’s and gender studies and art departments with funding from The Knight Foundation. None of these groups, Numina said, were told that the painting would be removed.
“All the departments’ funding went toward this, and they were all contributing for this mural to happen as a permanent installation,” Numina said. “Personally, I wouldn’t have come and painted something with that type of content if it was a temporary mural.”
Numina drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement and conversations surrounding Georgia’s legal protections of Confederate monuments. The artist spoke with Oni, Macon residents and Mercer’s black female athletes for input on how he could best represent Black communities when he began the project.
The mural ultimately featured Martin Delany, a 19th-century doctor and the first African American field grade officer in the U.S. Army, as well as Rosa Parks, black Civil War soldiers and black athletes kneeling in honor of National Anthem protests.
Now, Numina feels that Mercer has disrespected those influential figures and the community in Macon who reveres them.
“I know I’m a white person, but those people I painted are also my heroes, you know, and I sympathize with everybody around these issues as much as I can with my experience in life,” he said. “I felt that loss for Mercer and Macon.”
Numina “is currently being advised by his attorneys and plans on pursuing his artistic rights under the full extent of the law,” according to a press release he provided to The Cluster. He intends to explore the Visual Artists’ Rights Act, which he said states that Mercer should have given him 90 days’ notice before painting over the mural.
“Mercer did not provide Numina legal notice of its decision to paint over this extraordinary mural, which would have allowed him the ability to stop the destruction of his art or seek other remedies,” according to the press release.
Numina said that the legal action isn’t as much about financial compensation as it as about reconciliation between Mercer and Macon.
“There’s a real lack of awareness and entitlement to paint over that with complete disrespect and disregard to Macon’s African American community, as well as, you know, the student body in general of Mercer University. I think it’s just a huge, inconsiderate slap in the face,” Numina said.
James Stair, a 2019 Mercer graduate in chemistry and women’s and gender studies, wrote a letter to University President Bill Underwood about the decision to remove the mural.
“This was a several thousand dollar painting that was approved at every level, and repainting over this piece is a slap in the face of every Maconite that offered suggestions,” he wrote. “This is painting over Sam Oni. This is painting over Rosa Parks after a black woman across the street of the painting recommended that the painting include Rosa Parks specifically,” he wrote.
Stair urged Underwood to apologize to Numina and the Macon community who gave Numina their input for the painting. He also called for Underwood’s resignation.
“I am furious about this absurd demonstration of how little Mercer University cares about the people of Macon, and this directly conflicts with the University's Mission statement and values,” he wrote. “You should resign for what you allowed to happen today, as you have shattered everything that we have been working hard for through the many initiatives, classes, volunteer work, etc. to have a positive relationship with Macon.”
Stair said he is “only one of many alumni that are outraged by this complete disrespect for every black student at this University.”
Macon’s art community was also blindsided by the removal of Numina’s mural. Art in the Park, an organization named for a series of outdoor exhibitions of temporary public artworks supported by Mercer’s art department, posted on Facebook that it came “as a surprise since we have not heard of any other plans for the wall it was on.”
Woke up to a heavy heart when we learned that Joerael Elliot's mural in Mercer Village was being painted over this...
Posted by Art in the Park on Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Indigo Salon & Spa owner Jackie Wright responded in a comment that she was “shocked.”
“It was done while we (Indigo) were closed and I had no notice,” Wright wrote. “It’s so sad and disappointing.”
Natalie Bourdon, department chair of both anthropology and women’s and gender studies, wrote that removing the mural is “absolutely unconscionable and the epitome of whitewashing.” Bourdon, along with associate professor of art Craig Coleman, approached Numina about the mural back in 2017.
“This mural was meant to inspire conversation about, educate and advocate for our national and local civil rights heroes and the people most historically marginalized in our country,” Bourdon said. “It’s shameful.”
[pullquote speaker="Sanaa Yusuf, Mercer sophomore" photo="" align="right" background="off" border="none" shadow="on"]To say that the mural on campus that commemorates Black history was only temporary and was a pop up project in and of itself is disrespectful. They quite literally painted over Black history.[/pullquote]
Sanaa Yusuf is a sophomore who took Bourdon’s Applied Social Justice course as a freshman. In class, they learned about how the mural came to Mercer Village. Yusuf said they are angry that it was removed without explanation from the university, especially during a period of social distancing while few students are on campus to voice concerns.
“To say that the mural on campus that commemorates Black history was only temporary and was a pop up project in and of itself is disrespectful,” they said. “They quite literally painted over Black history.”
Mercer responded briefly to the backlash.
“Mercer Village mural was commissioned and funded by the College Hill Corridor Commission several years ago as a ‘pop-up’ public art demonstration project,” Mercer administrators said in a statement released to local news outlet 13WMAZ. “It was never intended to be permanent.”
In an email to The Cluster April 30, Director of Media Relations Kyle Sears said that statement “is all that will be provided at this time.”
Yusuf said Mercer’s response is not enough to make up for what they see as whitewashing.
“Mercer has a history of doing a poor job to address racism on campus, and we’ve seen this within the past calendar year alone,” they said. “This whole situation is just another reminder that even when we make strides to make change, it’s going to be temporary and later taken away.”