In the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, across the tracks from where Homer A. Plessy was removed from a train, sparking the infamous Supreme Court decision “separate but equal,” is visual artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums’ Studio Be.
Outside the 35,000-square-foot warehouse, the walls are spray-painted yellow and red. A little black girl painted in shades of purple stares and smiles, her palms facing upward, her curls encased in a halo. A poem about a wild, beautiful girl who was a shelter hints at what you’ll find inside.
Studio Be is that shelter, not just for Bmike’s first solo show, “Ephemeral Eternal,” but for glorious blackness. It features spray-painted images of civil rights icons, art installations replicating Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and paintings of locals that change the conversation around who gets to be considered beautiful and holy.
“I think there is a lot of redemptive power in understanding your presence in the continuum,” Bmike tells The Root of the reason behind his show’s name. “And knowing that you’re not just an isolated incident, that somehow your existence is in a way part of a relay race, or a elevator, or escalator of moments.”
Over the past two years, Studio Be has become a hot spot for celebrities, tourists and students looking to experience the elevation and celebration of street art. RZA has just wrapped the film he directed, Cut Throat City, starring Wesley Snipes, Kat Graham and T.I., inside Studio Be.
Dave Chappelle loved the show so much that he came back again with his wife and kids, buying pieces to hang in his home. Ava DuVernay filmed a scene for her hit show Queen Sugar at Studio Be, heavily featuring Bmike’s paintings of slain Black Lives Matter icons Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant. Encapsulating the theme of a moment in time that ripples throughout time, the four hold protest signs modeled after those from the civil rights movement, reading “I Am a Man.”
In a meta way of art imitating life inspiring art, Bmike’s paintings are used in the episode to teach a young teenager about black history. The studio itself has a “young artists in residence” wall where an average of four classes of students who tour the show a week can color in the black-and-white printouts of his paintings and take them home or hang them on the wall, along with phrases in chalk describing what they’ve learned.
“That part of it is, to me, more important than the superstars coming and the Queen Sugars happening,” he says of the impact celebrities have on his ability to bring more kids to his show. “It’s more beautiful when the kids come in and we’re able to connect.”
But just as Bmike and Studio Be are connecting with kids and finding their place in pop culture, the show is expected to close—likely by the summer. Before it’s taken apart and taken on the road, to be featured in studios around the country, The Root traveled to New Orleans to catch up with Bmike and experience “Ephemeral Eternal” firsthand.
It is, in a word, dope.
Broken into four rooms, the show begins with hope in the midst of struggle. In a piece painted on the front wall, a black woman stares down the barrel of a policeman’s gun and plugs it with a rose. The slain Black Lives Matter icons are crowned with halos. Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Muhammad Ali and Fred Hampton commune in various murals, a buffet of incontrovertible black excellence.
As one stands in the doorway looking into the second room, it almost looks as if the wall that Coretta Scott King is painted on is connected to the one Martin Luther King Jr. is painted on. From that angle, she’s looking directly at him, and the words on both walls read from left to right, “Love Supreme.” But as you enter the “Love” room, there is an obvious, wide gap between Coretta’s and Martin’s walls. It signifies, for Bmike, the complexity of their relationship.
“Maybe [King] just loved a little bit too much, because some of his behavior as a human, people could find problematic, and I wanted to explore that but not in a subtle way,” he says. Noting that much of MLK’s infidelities were thrown in Coretta’s face and yet she stayed with him, Bmike paints Coretta with an ambivalent look as she eyes her husband. “Maybe she just had a better, a higher understanding of love and her love for him,” he speculates with his work. “She’s looking at him like, ‘I see you, but I see you.’”
In continuing to challenge how we view and define heroes, that room contains an old phone booth papered over with the FBI’s redacted files on King.
“Allegedly, those [redacted] areas are supposed to be lifted in 2027, 2028, I think. So, what happens when we learn new information about Dr. King and the humanity of Dr. King? Would that change the way we preserve that eternal image of him?”
Those questions continue on the other side of King’s wall to the most controversial of the pieces. Bmike has painted Black Panther leader and convicted rapist Eldridge Cleaver, along with words from one of Cleaver’s love letters in his book Soul on Ice, which, within the context of love, Bmike admits is “a totally different hurricane of ideas and emotions.”
“As a young kid in college, it really awakened me to this idea of black consciousness, in a way,” he says of Cleaver’s writing. “But then as I would share this with people, especially women would be very upset, especially because I overlooked or didn’t focus on the fact that one of the reasons he was in jail was because he was raping women, and he had a way of justifying it.”
Bmike painted the word “No” over Cleaver’s love letter to symbolize his deepened understanding of what Cleaver had done, and to present a more complete narrative of who Cleaver was than the one Bmike had of him while in college.
“This also relates to what we’re dealing with now; how can we have icons and say, once we learn the whole of them, we can’t like this slice of them, we can’t appreciate or understand this slice?” he asks.
Bmike doesn’t look to answer these questions with his art, but he doesn’t mind the debates that pop off, particularly around this piece.
“I like the fact that this piece of art allows or asks those questions in a way that produces a conversation,” he says. “Two years into the creation of this work is a whole new concept that I’m debating and dealing with because when I painted it, it wasn’t really about that. That’s the beauty of art, I think; it doesn’t really remain one thing.”
Paintings of tatted-up locals as Black Jesus and Black Mary also used to mirror each other in this room, but a lucky patron took Jesus into his home, leaving the Holy Mother to bless the room on her own. In the very Catholic city of New Orleans, it’s no small thing to make a black woman the pillar of God’s love.
That love is challenged as you move into the most devastating room in the warehouse. Half of a wooden ship sticks out of the wall, part slave ship, part rescue boat for the refugees of Hurricane Katrina. In the far-right corner sits what appears to be a regular living room: a floor lamp, TV, couch, family portraits on the wall. The bottom half of the portrait is covered in purple paint; then you notice that the rest of the wall is covered in purple, too, along with the entire couch, the floor lamp and all of the TV. Then it hits you: The purple paint is the water line, and everything below it is what was baptized when the levees broke.
An installation in the middle of the room is the eye of the hurricane, with white clouds and wind and shadows, and words for the survivors: “You’re Still Here.” A video compilation captures the dichotomy of the storm: Old gospel songs play over footage of thousands of black folks getting baptized in a river, intercut with footage from failed Katrina rescue efforts, Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment, and a cartoon of Noah’s family praying and trembling inside the ark.
The final room brings you back to the beginning. The murals Bmike painted in abandoned and dilapidated buildings after Katrina that brought him to prominence a few years ago have been cut out of the walls and installed in Studio Be. As one looks back at these early murals of King, Malcolm X, Nina Simone and more, his growth in skill and theme over the past five years is apparent.
“[There was a time everyone had] halos and crowns,” he says of his earlier pieces. But after a conversation with a mentor, his idea of the over-assertion of black royalty and black godliness became unnecessary. “He asked me, ‘Why, at the expense of feeling less than human, do we have to boast a superhuman identity? Why we can’t just be like, ‘I’m human, and that’s enough for you to love and respect me?’ And that kind of changed how I created from that point.”
Now a painting of a black teen girl, wearing a simple black T-shirt, hangs in his studio with the powerful message, “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams.” A millennial black man, tatted up and shirtless, re-creates an iconic photo by drinking from a water fountain marked “White Only,” eyes staring into you. Before it sold, a painting hung of another young black boy in a red tee standing next to the word “Alchemist.” Three kids. Just humans. All worthy.
“It was like, OK, how can I approach paintings like that and say it’s enough that this person exists? I don’t need to add a crown or a halo to force somebody to be like, ‘Oh, this person is valuable,’” he says.
Though these revelations in the form of Studio Be will only be around for a short while longer, Bmike’s work isn’t going anywhere. In honor of New Orleans’ 300th anniversary, Bmike has been commissioned to paint a series of murals highlighting the hidden history of people and communities throughout the city.
His goal remains for black kids to see value in themselves when they walk away from his work, in whatever context.
“I want them to see a different prism of their potential and possibility,” he says. When kids walk through his studio and say, “I could do that,” it’s the most exciting thing for him: “I’m like, ‘Yes! You can! I hope you do it better.’”
In that way, he says, the art lives forever.