“New Orleans is a place where you can just fall into art,” says Brandan “Bmike” Odums. “You can find it anywhere, without a cost of admission.” We’re sitting in his office at Studio BE, the 35,000 square-foot Bywater warehouse space he’s turned into a center for his activism-through-art. In addition to housing his sprawling “Ephemeral.Eternal” exhibit, the building is the central nervous system of a globally recognized movement including educational programs, panel discussions, film, merchandise and more. A massive yellow exterior wall adorned with a young, haloed Black girl with hands outstretched greets visitors.
Anyone who lives in New Orleans has seen—or “fallen into”—work by Bmike, though perhaps unknowingly. Odums refers to himself as a “public artist” who prefers painting faces on a building rather than on framed canvases. Whether it’s his mural of Buddy Bolden on S. Rampart Street, the bygone New Orleans East “Wall of Peace” inspired by Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” or the Treme mural honoring the late musician Trumpet Black, his work punctuates our daily lives without requiring much effort from us. Known primarily for his use of vibrant spray paint-based portraiture, his art encourages conversations about resistance, existence, time, space and Blackness.
The NAACP Image Award-winning creator (who will showcase his first solo “museum” show, “Not Supposed to BE Here,” at Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University in January 2020) produced more than a dozen murals and room-sized installations for “Ephemeral.Eternal,” his debut solo exhibit. That’s right. His first solo exhibit is housed in a 35,000 square-foot building. It serves as an example of the audacious, purposeful, large-scale approach that makes a Bmike piece instantly recognizable.
Murals by Odums have appeared in places as disparate as Times Square and Palestine. His work has been celebrated by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Emmy-winning comedian Chris Rock, Academy-Award winning rapper Common, civil-rights icon and athlete Colin Kaepernick, Emmy-winning journalist Katie Couric and other titans of various industries. The subjects of his work range from contemporary victims of police killings like Mike Brown and Eric Garner to historical figures including Fred Hampton and Fannie Lou Hamer. Some of his subjects are well-known, some are nameless—but all of them beckon us to seek truth about who they are and why they matter, while following the guiding principle of “paint it where it ain’t.”
Odums’ work invites us to think about reality, without abstraction. Sure, his subjects are literally larger-than-life, with skin tone that might be a shade of blue, but ultimately what he’s sharing is an overall truth.
“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” he says, quoting author James Baldwin. For Odums, there must be intention behind work. More often than not, that intent is directed towards challenging, or at least analyzing, the status quo.
“In order for there to be order, there has to be a perception of peace,” he tells me. “That’s how order reaffirms itself—if everything is okay at all times, we don’t need to dismantle anything. It’s the artist’s job to investigate the idea of order and peace. We saw that in post-Katrina New Orleans. You heard mixtapes from rappers and musicians talking about things happening here, while others said the city was bouncing back. I remember there was a PSA, some tourism piece, where John Goodman was saying everything was okay. But the artists were talking about something completely different. As an artist, I’m going to walk you into this space that’s a little more than reality—it’s truth-telling. That’s part of the responsibility.”
Odums’ work is unambiguous. One of his installments is a makeshift basketball court, with a handcuffed Black arm in an orange jumpsuit and the words “1/3 Black males will go to prison in their lifetime. 3/10,000 will go to the NBA” spray-painted on a wall.
“I can always articulate what my intentions are, and at its best I can create something where it’s impossible to separate the intention from it. That’s why I choose to be as direct as possible,” he says.
Studio BE—which celebrates its fifth anniversary on November 15—is the third installment in a trilogy, and the following is an abridged version of how it all began.
Years ago, Odums was more focused on videography than painting, so he began directing, editing or producing videos for well-known hip-hop artists including Curren$y, Juvenile and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). He was spending a lot of time in abandoned locations, where the neglected and overgrown settings whispered stories of bygone inhabitants. One day, he stumbled upon a huge painting of a bird on the archway of a building.
“It really messed up my head. I was like, ‘Who did this, how did they do it, and why?’ It was beautiful. I got really interested in street art in these abandoned spaces, because it really broke all the rules of art—they can’t sell it, no one knows who they are,” he tells me.
Eventually, he began painting portraits of revolutionary Black icons in the empty Florida public housing in the 9th Ward. After posting a picture of his Malcolm X painting online, interest in his work grew and he began returning to the site regularly, documenting everything. The growing street-art gallery inside the old projects needed a name.
“I don’t know how it landed on Project BE,” says Odums. “A large part of the internal conflict I was going through at the time was that friends and family were saying ‘You’re wasting your time. Why are you wasting all this money on spray paint to go do this in a building that’s going to get torn down, where no one will see it?’ I liked the name Project BE because it was about the joy I felt in that moment, of what it meant to be.”
Odums began collaborating with members of the local graffiti community and Project BE caught the attention of other creatives as well as the media. Once a newspaper published an article saying the Florida projects would be demolished, curious people began flocking to see the extemporaneous, fleeting exhibit. The Housing Authority of New Orleans wasn’t interested in turning it into a sanctioned, public exhibit and Project BE was permanently shuttered.
Soon thereafter, Odums was on the Westbank shooting another music video. This time, the setting was the empty Charles DeGaulle Manor apartment complex, which became the site of the monumental Exhibit BE. With the owner’s permission, Odums and a collective of graffiti and street artists transformed the five story abandoned locale into the largest single-site public art exhibition in the American South. According to his website, all of the art in Exhibit BE “spoke to the spatialized racial violence that had led to the site’s unoccupied state.”
“We didn’t want it to be just an attraction, we wanted it to be confrontational,” he says. One of the subjects Odums painted at Exhibit BE was George Carter, a child activist and member of Rethink who was murdered in 2014.
“He was this young leader. It was this classic story of why did this happen, and no one knew. We hoped people would come, we knew the papers were going to write about it. We wanted people to know this was a space that they had never entered before. These stories weren’t exotic – they still exist.
“We opened our doors and it was so beautiful to see people of all types entering the space, from people who lived there, to people who had never entered the Westbank before, walking around, taking pictures. We had a brief program, a panel talk. It was dope to see this living version of art, about responding and being present, about getting you out your comfort zone. Truthfully, I think we wouldn’t be legally allowed to get a permit, but we operated under ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission.’ Literally, I thank God to this day there was never an incident there, because there was nails, glass, etc.”
Everything that happened at Exhibit BE was made possible by volunteers, though there was a donation collection out front. “People were putting twenties and hundred dollar bills in there. We never went to the red, so we were able to sustain it. Midway through, reflecting on the fact that teachers brought students to the other space illegally, we were trying to think of ways for people experience Exhibit BE on days we weren’t open, so we started doing school tours. That offered two things: we opened it to students on days when we weren’t open to the public, and we started charging for these tours, and the money went directly to the artists involved, who were the tour guides. It put us in the motion of being educators – I don’t know if any of us had done that before – but here we are talking about not just our work but others’ work. And then we’d asked the students to do art projects after, so it would be half-tour and half kids painting on the concrete or on tires, so it made the art space a living space even more.”
During the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in January 2015, Exhibit BE’s final weekend was celebrated with a historic event, dubbed “Block Power.” With co-sponsorship from developer Sean Cummings and actor Hill Harper, the three-day festival culminated with on-site performances from Erykah Badu, Dead Prez and David Banner as well as locals Trombone Shorty, Christian Scott, Dee-1 and more.
Badu was booked as a DJ, Lo Down Loretta Brown. But something magical happened. “She goes from behind the DJ booth and does this 15-minute a cappella set that was just so beautiful, with a choir of 10,000 people singing along,” Odums remembers. “She went to that part – ‘this goes out to all my folks, baptized when the levees broke’ – and everyone was singing that part.”
Exhibit BE was Odums’ second collaboration with Sean Cummings, a longtime investor in the arts. “He came to talk with me about Exhibit BE, expressing his frustration that around the time this project was not being recognized and sanctioned,” says Cummings. “That’s the kind of thing I love – it’s classic, it happens with every rebel: the establishment doesn’t recognize it and seeks to extinguish it. I love rebels, from Jean-Michel [Basquiat] to Prince to Steve Jobs. I said, ‘Let’s do something bigger and better.’ He was kind enough to let me collaborate with him on that and to help sponsor Exhibit BE. It gave me a chance to see what a special man he is. Particularly, I think of the quote by Emile Zola that says, ‘If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I came to live out loud.'”
“Anybody there that day will talk about this shared sacredness,” says Odums of Block Power. “It’s very difficult to synthesize or redo it. There was this collection of energy that was the polar opposite of toxic—the idea of community. There were people wiping away tears in the crowd. It was one of those moments where, years after, people say ‘I was there,’ and it won’t happen again.”
What did happen was Exhibit BE solidified in Odums’ mind his status as an artist. “What was accomplished was so far outside of what was expected. I became more intentional about painting in public spaces. What I learned was that art was about community and reality, and it’s not about creating a fabricated, alternative world.”
The artist now recognized world-wide for giant pieces of work began with a goal that is Lilliputian by comparison. He just wanted to stand out from his high school peers at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).
“I was at Edna Karr [High School] on the Westbank—that’s where my family’s from, in Algiers—and I remember NOCCA did this presentation in the gym,” he tells me while sketching something in his notebook. “And I said, ‘This is where I need to be.’ So I started doing half a day at Edna Karr and half a day at NOCCA. That’s when I was really introduced to fine art as an institution, as a career. My goals were small. I just wanted to be the best artist in the school. I think that’s why, when I graduated NOCCA, I said ‘I’m not doing art anymore,’ because I’d reached the pinnacle.”
Mary Jane Parker, chair of the Visual Arts department at NOCCA and his former teacher, remembers fondly the student she refers to by his first name. “Brandan was one of our best students,” she recalls. “He has amazing drawing skills and he eventually learned this skill of translating his ability to draw what he sees into this large-scale format, which is pretty impressive.”
His talent alone, she says, doesn’t aptly quantify Odums’ contributions to the art world. “He’s finding a way to connect to the community. He’s more of a character than, say, a DiVinci. He has his finger on the pulse of what needs to be done to pull the city together or to create an action that really gets people from all walks of life excited.”
Born in Oceanside, California to a New Orleanian mother and a father in the Marines, an infant Odums lived here before moving to military bases in Japan, Korea and North Carolina, shuffling around every couple of years. By the time he and his brothers were near high-school age, their dad retired and settled the family in New Orleans, where he remained up until Hurricane Katrina. But even before then, the future Bmike was sketching his fate.
Beginning around his second-grade year, he began “doing what was necessary to become an artist,” including taking art classes. “I remember this infomercial where they sent you this package and art test, and you get these art classes via the mail,” he says. “I remember doing it, and they were attracted enough to send a representative. My parents never pursued it, but there was intention, even back then.”
Through the upheaval of his semi-nomadic childhood, art became Odums’ way of introducing himself to folks with whom he was sharing new space. Unlike his athletic brothers, he was “terrible” at sports, so art became his social identity. It was at NOCCA that identity became even more consequential.
“My proximity to Black art wasn’t present,” he says of his teenage years. “The internet wasn’t a huge thing; social media wasn’t really a thing at all. At NOCCA at the time, I was a minority. The way they taught art was a very European mindset—any art institution was like that, because they taught Van Gogh and stuff like that. I was like, ‘None of these are my story.’”
As a high-schooler, Odums participated in a Black History Month-themed art contest sponsored by Cox, three years in a row. “Each time I won,” he remembers. “From there, you would go to this formal thing at NOMA where they displayed all the artists. You got to see your art in the NOMA, and the winners got from a range of $250 for fourth place to maybe $1000 for first. So that was the main way I was introduced to art outside the classroom. It was still structured, but it was cool – it was about Black history, it required the students to do some research, Ray Nagin was the CEO of Cox cable so he was there, and it was exciting to see your family dressed up.”
Odums opted to take a media arts class at NOCCA, and it signaled a seismic shift in his direction. He fell in love with video.
At the University of New Orleans, Odums enrolled in the film department. There, he channeled his creative energy into studying the works of Black directors like Spike Lee, Hype Williams, Ernest Dickerson and Director X. He began releasing videos as part of a collective known as 2-Cent Entertainment, formed in 2005. Around the same time, he was introduced to the artwork of Emory Douglas, whose graphic art featured prominently in newsletters published by the Black Panther Party. “His work was presented as art with a function,” Odums recalls. He says Douglas’ work was his first time seeing something he identified as Black art.
The Black experience has become a fundamental thread running through all of Odums’ work, from his works proclaiming “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” to his Hurricane Katrina installation at Studio BE reminding viewers “You Are Still Here.” His art echoes the functional art of Emory Douglas and countless other Black artists whom Paul Robeson may have described as “gatekeepers of truth.”
“I think truth-telling is activism,” Odums says when asked about how his art makes him an activist. “It’s always going to be a form of activism: to assert my story in a space where people won’t necessarily want to hear it. There are certain responsibilities that are innate with being an artist. Resistance is resistance. Just the fact that you exist showcases a type of activism. I represent a type of reality that makes people uncomfortable in a lot of ways. Sometimes I’m in white spaces, where I’m a type of Black male they haven’t seen—ever …that’s a type of activism.”
Odums—who in October was given the 2019 Black Excellence Icon Award by the 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans association—was recently asked by someone if being a Black artist makes him feel marginalized. “What great art does is make the margins attractive, it makes the margins sexy,” he responded. “Black art has always been about ‘this is the margin, the place you’re afraid of, but we’re going to make it so exciting that you’re going to want to experience it.’ Black art always started off as the edge, like jazz was the edge, where people could only see it in a seedy place or whatever. Rock ’n’ roll was the edge. The edges then get pulled into the center, and then people look for new edges. As a Black artist, your proximity to success is either existing in a representation of the edge, or fighting against the idea that you’re an artist on the edge.”
Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” In Odums’ case, that city is New Orleans but the sentiment is the same: art should exist without confines. “Art is so interwoven into our experience, it’s culture, it’s how we make our time on this planet beautiful,” he says. “Art is too connected to the way we exist, so for me it’s always about ‘how can I extract the idea of art from the definition of art?’”
The utilization of unorthodox spaces is the primary way in which Bmike has extracted idea from definition. He’s deeply committed to the collaborative spirit of street art, conscious of how his work affects the people in whose neighborhoods he paints.
“I’m conscious of not being a singular voice, especially in a public space,” he says. “The wackest thing for a street artist to do is to forget that the word ‘public’ is in ‘public art.’ It’s not about me exploiting the public space to say what I always wanted to say, and I have problems with artists who think about it that way. There has to be some type of responsibility when you’re entering someone’s space, like when you enter someone’s home and you have to take your shoes off. Even when I’m working in New Orleans, I don’t have to see this every day, but the house across the street does. So, we have to think about how we can collaborate.”
He recalls a specific experience, while he was working on a mural in the Lafitte Greenway.
“There was this kid who lived a couple houses over. He kept coming by, mad curious, asking can he help, can he do this. I think my first response would’ve been ‘I got an objective, you’re in my way, and I need to get this done,’ but everyone needs to be like this kid. He was like, ‘This is my community, and ain’t nothing happening without my input.’ He wasn’t politically savvy in that context, but he knew enough to know he sees this wall every day and that I was changing it. I think it’s important to think about that larger balcony view of things. We’re blessed with the ability to translate things in a way that reaches across barriers, and I think with that there’s a responsibility of carrying certain energies with that. When we break these walls, we’re not doing it as a singular act.”
The public’s access to his art makes any agency he has over his art something I wanted to know more about. What happens when anyone can see your work, without any context about why it’s there?
“There are certain things you lose agency over. There are some unavoidable destinies for something that demands attention,” he tells me. He draws a parallel to musicians who request their music not be played at rallies for Donald Trump. “You lose agency when you create what you create. You’re not going to be there every time someone presses play on your music, saying ‘How are you engaging with this, or what are you getting from this, how do you interpret it?’
“Once it’s out there, I can’t really control how the public uses it, and also unfortunately how the owners of those spaces use it. Whether you’re doing graffiti on the illegal spectrum or a mural on the legal spectrum, you’e part of the dialogue of what happens in public space. A graffiti artist can’t say they’re not part of a gentrification process, because they’re just as much a part of it as a hired muralist. Once we’re done, what we’re creating is being used to tell some type of a story, whether the story is ‘Look at this place, this is what’s going on and it needs to be changed,’ or whether it’s saying ‘This space is cool now, so come check it out.
“I think intention is often important when it comes to attention. That something I often can distinguish about this city because I think the intention of how and when we create has always been divorced from any desire to be something other than ourselves. In other places, it’s like a superhero alias, and I think people fall in love with New Orleans because it’s very hard to put on that superhero alias, because people will call you out. It’s very difficult to be Hollywood here. It forces a lot of authenticity in what we create.”
Most of us don’t think about New Orleans when thinking about street art, but this city is in many ways the perfect place for it.
“New Orleans presents art in a way that’s not elitist,” says Odums. “You go to other places, and what you see is that the best of who they are is behind a velvet rope. In New Orleans, the best of who we are is generally accessible to anyone, which can be problematic. I’m constantly fighting for the idea that to invest in New Orleans is to invest in the culture creators of this city. However, I’m deeply concerned and afraid of what happens—do we become L.A.? Do we become New York, where all the culture creators are inaccessible, because they’re on this pedestal, where they’re inaccessible because of press, agents, photographers?
“I remember hearing Kalamu [ya Salaam] speak once, and someone in the audience asked him about how to make a living as an artist, and his response was so harsh but so real, and so outside the way I thought about before. He said the premise of that question is that you deserve to make a living as an artist, that just because you’re able to experience life in a way that you feel is a quality above others, then you think you deserve to be compensated for that. What are you contributing to society, what are you building, what are you teaching? How do you determine this painting is $100,000 and this is $10? What I pulled from it was that this elder from New Orleans who violently opposed the idea that because you can sing and dance means that you should deserve to be in a Bentley. And it’s contradictory for me to say that, because as I grow as an artist I actively demand or turn down things because it’s not what I want. That’s the conundrum – I love this city enough to want all the creators to be at least at the place of sustaining themselves in the sense that this city has a multibillion dollar tourist industry. All of that industry is driven by these culture bearers – these chefs, siingers, dancers, and artists should all have an equitable piece of those billions of dollars, so I would fight for that actively. I’m blessed that I was one of the few people who didn’t have to leave the city to make it work. I know this isn’t a constant space that I’m in – I’m conscious that in a year they might not say Bmike is not poppin’ – I’m conscious of this being a moment, but I’m nblessed that I was able to make ti work here.”
New Orleans has a lengthy history of harnessing the transformative nature of art and performance to unmask collective pain, from second lines to Mardi Gras parades to John T. Scott’s sculptures and much else. As Odums puts it, “That’s ultimately the thread of what I love about this city—the idea of the alchemist, of turning pain into beauty. “You have the ability to experience this trauma or pain and you can turn it into gold.”