“They can move mountains without flexing a bicep!” proclaims a cartoonish bubble aside Brandan “BMike” Odums’ oversized acrylic-and-spray paint canvas reminiscent of Marvel comic book covers, which spans an entire wall at Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum. “Watch them leap over your tall social hurdles.”
The inspiring piece is part of Odums’ larger “NOT Supposed 2-Be Here” exhibit, which opened in early January and is slated to continue throughout the year once the museum reopens. Overcoming social (distancing) hurdles of its own, the exhibit can also be viewed virtually.
As with much of Odums’ work, the larger-than-life superheroes depicted in “The Adventures of Black People (When Push Comes to Shove)” aren’t fictitious characters but real people, students the aerosol artist has mentored through his BE Lite 504 Collective. It’s just one of many community outreach projects the 34-year-old has helped spawn since surging onto the local art scene in 2013.
“No matter what you do,” the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts grad said in a 2015 TED Talk, “—if you have the power to flex your pencil, flex your mind, your body, your paint brush—you have a responsibility with that to make the world a better place.”
“NOT Supposed 2-Be Here,” Odums’ first solo museum show, is a fitting title for an unconventional talent whose vibrant street style does not comfortably fit standard art confines. The free exhibit explores Odums’ evolution from little-known videographer to headline-grabbing graffiti artist, who achieved cult status when he turned a storm-ravaged housing complex into Project BE, an under-the-radar (and not-quite-legal) personal gallery space filled with empowering messages and massive murals of civil rights icons.
The next year he followed with “Exhibit BE,” which transformed another blighted property into a five-story must-see, drawing more than 10,000 viewers, many of whom had never stepped foot in a gallery, much less a museum. “Art has amazing power to bring people together,” Odums explained in a 2018 Do Lecture, “to challenge, to inspire.”
In addition to some of Odums’ past works, “NOTSupposed 2-Be Here” features 30 new paintings and sculptures, including site-specific pieces such as the 28-foot-long “Family Tree,” his largest to date, and “Baptised Revised,” an immersive, Katrina-focused installation. Overarching themes of identity and inclusion, resistance and resilience—common to Odums’ creations—are woven throughout.
A Room of His Own
Across town in the Bywater neighborhood, Odums’ Studio BE, housed in a sprawling 35,000-foot warehouse, offers his continuing “Ephemeral Eternal” exhibit. The uplifting space explores African-American life and struggles through a variety of installations, as well as giant portraits of historical trailblazers, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hammer, and contemporary figures like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Since its debut in 2016, Studio BE, named one of 50 best things to do in the world by Time Out, has seen thousands of visitors pass through its doors, from busloads of area school kids to national notables, such as Sen. Cory Booker and filmmaker Ava DuVerney, among others.
Currently open by appointment only, due to Covid-19 restrictions, Studio BE continues to inform, educate and broaden young minds with its new Home Is Where the Art Is initiative. Designed to keep kids active during the pandemic, the free, DIY kit includes a 32-page coloring book of Odums’ imagery, along with makers and crayons.
Mural, Mural on the Wall
Acquaint yourself with his style, and you’ll spot Odums’ iconic imagery all over the city, from his depiction of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden on the 400 block of South Rampart to Bayou Road, the Lafitte Greenway and the Tremé neighborhood.
Odums isn’t the only muralist around, however. Last summer the Arts Council of New Orleans and the Helis Foundation commissioned five large-scale outdoor works (including one by BMike) in and around the city’s Arts District, as part of the ongoing “Unframed” series, which will add additional works in the coming months.
Travel along North Rampart and St. Claude, and you’ll discover even more, including famed London street artist Banky’s “Umbrella Girl”; his “Looters” now resides in the lobby of the International House hotel. Fans of Berlin-based artist MTO will find his two-story tribute to the late Dr. John at the corner of Dryades and Toledano and another MTO mural along nearby Freret Street.
Want more? The good folks at Where Y’art have done the footwork for you. Visit their site for a guide to other must-see murals around town.