Ashley Lorraine Photography

New Orleans' artist BMike on art as a tool for survival

Fall in New Orleans is neither brisk, nor refreshing. Still, the housing complex turned art gallery I walked through in October of 2014 — Exhibit Be, it was called — had that distinct first-day-of-school energy. Something was brewing for the artist, Brandan Odums, who had transformed Degaulle Manor, a 360-unit apartment community that’d been left abandoned and crumbling since Hurricane Katrina. A couple of months prior, he called on a squad of his peers, street artists, to help him convert the space into a vibrant, poignant commentary on race. Splashed and tagged across walls, doors, and gutted former apartment units were likenesses of Black and brown activists and icons and their quotes about identity and freedom.

Exhibit Be certainly wasn’t the beginning of now 34-year-old Odums’s career in art and activism, but it was a pivotal moment as far as recognition. He’s been adorning canvases, buildings, and brick walls with the faces of Black thinkers — both famous and not-so-much — since he was in elementary school. There’s no doubt in my mind that creating and seeing these images of greatness begets confidence, because as he sits across from me now, in the front room of his gargantuan workspace that doubles as a gallery, it’s clear that BMike knows his worth. He’s a son of New Orleans, after all.

See, New York City and Los Angeles are best known for taking raw talent and producing stars — and spitting out the rest. People come to these cities to “make it.” New Orleans is, instead, the belly that births cultural artifacts in human form. Since its inception, the city has helmed art as an act of resistance, a vehicle for freedom — whether it was enslaved people in Congo Square, Louis Armstrong on the cornet, Leah Chase in the kitchen, or today, Big Freedia on the mic. Artists aren’t transformed here. They slide out glistening, kicking and screaming, and instinctually geared to stir things up.

“Art has always been a type of survival technology,” BMike tells me, reflecting on a past mentor’s refusal to acknowledge the concept of art for art’s sake. “When indigenous people wove baskets together, it wasn’t just about the image of the work — it had a function.”

I can’t help but think about this moment, in particular, when he says this. A “racial reckoning,” as it’s feebly referred to, probably because many of us don’t know how to articulate the moment when the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor finally woke non-Black people up to the ongoing reality of modern-day lynchings. BMike’s work has responded to a racial reckoning from the day he picked up a crayon. His murals of Black faces and messages of inspiration and protest appear in New York City’s Times Square, a men’s prison in Southern California, the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, and in cities all over the country. He’s been ready for this moment. He belongs to it. But that concept of belonging somewhere is complicated as hell for a Black contemporary artist.

He tells me how, after an abundance of locally celebrated shows over the course of his career, and that successful fall in 2014 when over 30,000 flocked to Exhibit Be, he thought galleries would come find him. They didn’t. So, after applying for and earning a grant from the Joan Mitchell foundation, he opened his own space: Studio Be, which was originally supposed to be a pop-up but has turned into a permanent fixture of New Orleans culture. And in January of this past year, Tulane University invited him to show at their esteemed Newcomb Gallery. It was the first foray into what most people consider, fine arts royalty.

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Friends asked him why he chose to bring his art to spaces that have, historically, not been welcoming to people like him, a young Black visual artist focusing on racial injustice. Ironically, the show, which ran earlier this year, addressed exactly that struggle. It was called “Not Supposed to Be Here.” “I wanted to really focus on how I felt I got there, but also critique the need to be there,” Bmike says. He describes a section in the show where several canvases were placed on the wall, gallery style, that read “Why are you here?” Those pieces covered some of his other paintings, as a commentary on privilege. He was the space — but, he wonders, why is he finally allowed to be?

Since George Floyd was killed, BMike’s phone, as you can imagine, has been ringing. Industry folks (Rolling Stone magazine, among other prestigious white-led institutions) have reached out to him to do cover art and the like, presumably in an attempt to participate in the “uprising” in some, perhaps safe, way. For BMike, though, these calls yielded only a few minutes of excitement until sobering questions about his and other Black artists’ work surfaced.

“Are we just here to decorate the problem — to kind of, do this performative dance?” He asks. That doesn’t negate the value of it, in terms of what it’s able to do, he assures me. But he is constantly conflicted about this concept — that his art could come across as a shiny accessory to grief instead of a reaction to it, or tool of resistance.

There’s a duality to the way Black artists explore their pain for public consumption. “There’s a function to seeing Black pain. And the function might not be what you intend it to be,” he says, reminding me about images of lynchings that were once sold on postcards. “Those weren’t for a Black audience. These were postcards people purchased with images of Black pain.”

The term “trauma porn” bubbles up and we discuss the psychological implications of consuming images that conjure racial violence. BMike’s visual tributes to Harriet Tubman, but also Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner rip open wounds for some. But they may embolden others, echoing the omnipresent threat of roaring white supremacy. For this reason, he appears to constantly examine his work’s intentions — and the reactions it elicits from different audiences.

Ashley Lorraine Photography

Many of his paintings, however, are talismans of Black joy. When I walk around and outside his studio, I’m lifted by larger-than-life images of victorious figures living their best lives — a cherubic curly-haired girl crafted with hues of royal purple, a halo floating around her head; a young shirtless man, inked up in true New Orleans fashion, making eye contact while drinking from a water fountain marked “White Only”; a woman standing, eyes closed in tranquility, wearing a T-shirt that reads “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” Triumphant.

“I’m conflicted because sometimes, I’ll confront someone who walks into the space and they’re in tears, telling me what it’s doing to them personally,” Bmike says. “Like how it is a type of therapy to them and their experience.” He is a therapist of sorts, when you think about the way art is a vehicle to process emotions.

And then there are his more traditional therapy sessions, which come in the form of a mentorship program where he meets with Black teenage artists from the city to discuss social justice issues in conjunction with their work. In recent sessions, amidst conversation about the current uprisings, he’s been encouraging the kids to manifest their anger in the most productive way possible. “We understand that you’re angry and frustrated, but you’re creators,” he tells them, “We can talk about what needs to be dismantled — that’s an important conversation. But what do you want to build?”

Ashley Lorraine Photography

Helping young artists find their voice goes beyond traditional definitions of success for BMike. He began to process this concept of belonging — as well as worth and exploitation — as a child. He recalls doing drawings of Ninja Turtles and Sonic the Hedgehog in second grade. “This one kid asked if he could have a drawing, so I gave it to him. And I saw him go back to his desk, erase my name, and write his name,” BMike says. “For him to do that, I realized that there’s some sort of assumed value to not only what’s created, but who created it. That was when the dots began to connect. He was a white kid, too, so there were so many layers to think about.”

BMike’s signature, often including a Basquiat-esque crown on top, is now unerasable. Like those who paved the way, it’s evident that he’s supposed to be “here” — in elite art galleries full of quietly wealthy people sipping Prosecco. In movies, magazines, museums, and other spaces where his perceptions of the past and exploration of the current moment will become the canon. “Ask for forgiveness; don’t ask for permission,” he tells me, about moving into uncharted territory. “I just want to continue the conversation.”