By Tyree C. Worthy for NoirBnb
New Orleans street artist Brandan “B. Mike” Odums has been a favorite since I visited Exhibit Be in 2014. The collaborative exhibit, dubbed the largest street art exhibit in the Southern U.S., turned a blighted apartment complex into a immersive lot full of love, color, power, blackness, wisdom, imagination, hope, and larger-than-life expression. B. Mike’s love for “painting where it ain’t” started it all.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants” was painted in a staircase there, accompanied an adamant child in oversized boxing gloves challenging a seemingly timid Muhammad Ali in his prime. I’ll forever remember the local faces and historical legends Exhibit Be showed off—from Radio Raheem and James Baldwin to a four-story mural of the Ferguson, Mo. protester throwing a lit tear gas can back to where it came.
Since the exhibit’s grand closing in 2015, B. Mike has done murals across the country and the world, depicting/immortalizing the Black experience and some of its legends, dead and alive. Recent subjects include Jazz pioneer Dizzy Gillespe; political prisoner Albert Woodfox of the Angola Three; and New Orleans’ own musicians Trumpet Black and PJ Morton.
I met B. Mike at his current artist home, Studio BE: an endless warehouse with rooms full of 30-foot portraits, interactive installations, and a gift shop with collectibles up front.
Q: What is it about murals that entices you? And how do you pick the people you paint?
I think scale gives the illusion of value. When you see something large, it’s like a Napoleon Complex. Scale gives this perception of value. As an artist I like playing with that—the idea of working large and how it imposes a certain level value to the subject. Like, I just painted in Harlem a six-story Dizzy Gillespe portrait. So stuff like that is like “ah, it’s giant because it represents his status and how he was when he lived.”
And then, you can paint somebody that no one knows and people could be like, “oh, who is that?” They assume this person must be valuable because I painted them very large, and it gives an opportunity to show that there is value in the everyday as well. That’s kind of what attracts me to working large and doing murals.
I think there’s also the idea of working in a public space. It forces you to be a collaborator and not just an artist inside your own head, but how do you look at a space and think about what’s in the neighborhood, who walks by, what’s the history of the wall, what’s the history of the community, and in some way collaborate with all that information into something you put. I love that aspect of it as well.
Q: So what was the first commissioned piece you did outside of New Orleans? or most memorable?
I’m not grasping the first one right now, but I think the most memorable one would probably be doing a piece in Palestine in the Middle East. I was out there and I did a mural—a few. I did one on the wall separating the West Bank from Israel, and I did another one inside this bar that was pretty dope. I just happened to be there, and I ended up talking to the owner, and he was like, “Hey you should paint something on the wall.” I was like, “aight.” So that’s cool, the fact that the work is that far away.
And also I like the scale of the one in Harlem and being able to tap into that history out there. While I was painting the portrait of Dizzy, there were people who walked by who had very intimate relationships with Dizzy. One woman said, “Oh, I went on tour with him for such-and-such years.” So that was just dope to have that happen.
I feel like as a muralist you have such a unique way of traveling, you know, ‘cause I feel like when I go to a space, I’m there to collaborate and contribute. Therefore, I gotta learn and see it from a different way. I can’t just look at it from the surface, at its best; I’m trying to investigate the depth of it and see what are some of the stories that aren’t told. So that’s what I love about travel and painting. So, any space where that happens would probably be at the top of my memory.
Q: So what are some places you’ve been where you liked art from other people? Like, if I were traveling, where would you say I should go?
I think it’s dope now that most major cities are embracing public art in a way that’s special. I think Miami and Wynwood come to mind at the top as a space that championed it very well. Then, I really enjoy spaces like Detroit where street art is a direct response to “the lack of,” you know what I mean? Like how it is in New Orleans in some ways, where in Detroit you have so many spaces in transition or abandoned spaces, and you’ll see street art that’s responding to that. I love that aspect of it.
I also loved being in Palestine and seeing how street art was used in a different way. It wasn’t just about the aesthetics and the beauty of it; it was about communicating, it was about using the wall as a space to directly say something. I really appreciated that.
I feel like the challenge is, wherever you go, wherever you travel, is to find those spaces, and you will find them to be very beautiful. I think they’re starting to exist in most cities, where you don’t just ask, “Where would I find some good murals or some good street art?” It’ll normally be a space that’s going to be either forgotten or in transition, and you see art as a way of asserting or combating that “being left behind,” if you will.
Q: When you go to different places, do you consider your New Orleans background? Is your art a New Orleans influence?
Definitely. You know, New Orleans is a space that teaches you a lot as a creative. It teaches you why to do it when it’s not about fame or fortune, you know, because at its best and worst.
New Orleans is a space where there are so many creative people, and all of them aren’t Jay-Z, or all of them aren’t (insert whoever’s at the top of the game). You’re surrounded by so much great talent, so there’s a lot of beauty in that. The bus driver is also gonna be playing the saxophone or the trumpet at some second line, or the cook in the kitchen is also, you know, and probably got recipes to some of the most amazing dishes, you know what I mean? So, I like the fact that art doesn’t directly correlate with celebrity status here.
New Orleans teaches you how to be humble, teaches you how to be relevant. It teaches you how to be a part of a choir, and not to just think of yourself as, “Oh I’m the lead singer, it’s all about me-me-me.” New Orleans teaches you how to collaborate and how to be a part of something, how to be part of a whole, and I think that’s what I take with me wherever I go. “It’s not about me, it’s about how I can contribute to this,” and that’s what New Orleans is. You look at a second line, you look at the music, you look at the food, you’re looking at collaboration at its best, you know what I mean? So I think that’s what New Orleans teaches me and what I carry with me wherever I go.
We sat and talked under grandiose depictions of a fan-crowded, seemingly tired Martin Luther King, Jr., next to miles-high murals of Paul Robeson & Fannie Lou Hamer with quotes of theirs. “Artists are the gate keepers of truth” is in block text over Paul’s head. Between him and Fannie is her quote, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Q: Tell me about how you feel art has changed and developed, before your time, your time (pre- and post-Katrina), and where it’s going. First, where it came from & where it started.
I think what’s beautiful about New Orleans is that since it’s such an old city, and it’s such an African city. You can directly correlate the practices of enslaved people who were allowed to explore their culture publicly in Congo Square legally, in spaces where enslaved people around this country weren’t allowed to participate and continue their cultural practices. Here, it was allowed. You could directly draw a line from what happened in Congo Square to the development of music; and how the Mississippi River became the main vein of American culture by way of African influences; and how all those remixes and samples begin to grow & develop what we define as popular culture today.
So I think, in New Orleans, you can trace it back that far and say, “Okay, the past has been that: this story of resistance via culture.” You think about the foodways here. All the different food dishes that you love about New Orleans come directly from West Africa, or people who were enslaved who used their food traditions as a way to subtly resist this imprisonment of the body. “You can have my body, but you can’t have my culture. You can’t have my brain. You can’t have my heart.” And that’s what you see in the culture that’s created—in the music, the food, the dances, the traditions.
So, I feel like the past of New Orleans art & culture represents that. And I think as we grow, we see all the remixes and beautiful samplings of that. I think now, after Katrina, we’re existing in a space where people, creatives and culture-bearers, are starting to understand their value at a point where they’re demanding to be included. They’re demanding to say—whether it’s in the industry, whether it’s in the context of sustainability in New Orleans—they’re saying, “Nah, we matter, we understand out value, we’re gonna work to defend it.” I think that’s what I’m excited about: that there’s a younger generation of artists and creatives who understand their value and also understand the power of their voice.
And I think that’s more of a national conversation where I think we’re in this, this resurgence of this Black arts movement, where Black people in general are starting to understand, “You know what? My voice matters, and stakes are too high for us to just not contribute our voice to this conversation.” So, you have all these artists who are being more intentional about the music they create, the art they create, the poetry they write, you know? They wanna talk about what’s happening. They wanna talk about what’s going on in the streets. They wanna talk about Black Lives Matter. They wanna talk about their value and all these things. So I feel like, I’m happy to be part of that movement, and be a part of that… ethos… that collective…
NB: That moment in history
Yeah, that moment, yeah, yeah, exactly. So, what I just spoke is like a circle. It’s like creating art and culture as a form of resistance, then going back to now creating art and culture as a form of resistance, you know what I mean? And I feel like that’s what we’re seeing at its best. Some of the best musicians on the charts now are artists who are talking about stuff. Kendrick Lamar is not just making songs that make you dance, he’s talking about something. I feel like we’re engaged in a culture that understands that value. It’s circular. That’s history being circular.
Q: A lot of your art is political. Do you think that’s through necessity, or are you moved to do it? Do you feel called to do it, or does it just come out like that?
All of the above! I think there’s definitely some intention behind it, there’s some ideas in thinking about people like Paul Robeson, who said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” and understanding that responsibility. But then I also think that… there’s definitely… I mean it feels good to be able to… it’s selfish in a way because it’s therapeutic. You know, art therapy is important, so for me, a lot of the paintings are not only being intentional about speaking truth, but it’s also therapeutic in a way of painting these portraits and somehow finding the hope in these paintings, or understanding that they lend to this idea of hope, so I think it’s twofold. It’s intentional in how it can help others but it’s also a form of art therapy for me.
Q: What are some of your favorite topics or elements that you like to include in your art?
I’m a big fan of history, so I love being able to tap into the lessons of the past, and finding ways to bring them forth today. I love portraits; I love the idea of the value of human beings and being able to use art as a way to kind of assert that value. I love text; I love to include text in what I create. I think that words have this…words are able to do things that paintings can’t do, and vice versa. So I like to be able to tap into both of those and define phrases, like the one on my sweatshirt.
“I AM MY ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS.” The same quote lay on the shirt of New Orleans singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank and the Bangas in a portrait of her on the opposite wall.
That just somehow seems so powerful that it’s hard to deny. Anyone who sees it, it’s hard for them to deny it. So yeah, those are some of the things that are recurring in a lot of my work.
NB: Of course, I noticed the crowns, too.
Yeah, definitely, that’s all another conversation about value, and just how we value, and who we value.
Q: Do you take anything from the art or artists in the areas that you visit to incorporate into your style?
Yeah, that’s part of the collaboration. I think I try to be open to the idea of collaboration everywhere I go, whether it’s subtle, or whether it’s fully imposed. I like the fact that each space has a different way of telling a story, but it’s still these universal ideas, and there’s always differences as well. I like to go into a space and not feel like I have all the answers. I like going to a space and investigate, ask questions, and that brings about a type of collaboration that is unique to each space that I go to.
Q: So, what do you think people should take away from your art?
I mean, I hope at its best, they take away this idea of the value that they have inside of them, you know, that they look in the paintings and see themselves reflected. And within seeing themselves reflected, they see reflected the value of human potential. I like to paint people who have created and done great things. I like to paint quotes and thoughts that are just the best of what it means to be human, you know? So I hope when people look at these things they see their potential and that they see their value. That, at its best, is the role I see that my art plays.
Some recurring phrases at Studio BE include Ephemeral Eternal, Love Supreme, Alchemist, and my personal favorite: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Q: I see you’re steadily expanding the gallery space. What are the plans?
As of now, this part of it [front exhibit area; one of three in use] is at its peak. I think from here… this was all about exploring this interior idea. Like, “how can I create a body of work?” Because I think prior to this, I had no body of work. This was about, “How can I make a body of work that explores everything I’ve been doing in the public space?”
I’ve been expanding, allowing this space to create those challenges. What you see is the response to those challenges. I think after this, it’s just about going back into being more intentional about painting in public spaces. The one thing about this space, it kind of forced me to stay inside, but after this, I want to be able to continue to push myself out, and far, and high, and low.
Q: Final Question. How do you think you’ll be remembered?
I remember Huey P. Newton saying that someone asked him the same question, and he said that if he has to be remembered, then the job didn’t get done. That made a lot of sense to me, because you know, I feel like I’m trying to be a part of an idea, and myself as an individual is miniscule in the context of the overall idea. So, I feel like I don’t necessarily need to be remembered as much as this moment and the ideas present. I would prefer those things be remembered, and explored, and celebrated. But I’m just trying to show that you don’t necessarily have to be a superhero to have an impact. I’ve been blessed with gifts and ability to create, but I feel like it’s not a superhuman ability, you know? I’m human, I’m just trying to do the best that I can with what I got. So if anything, I would hope that something in there is a conversation about the potential we all have to just be effective and to just make our voices be heard.
So yeah, if I had to be remembered in some way, I would hope it’s that way: as just another narrative of someone who tried to do something while they were here. And I feel like that’s not special, all of us are in that same predicament.
Studio BE is open Wednesday thru Saturday, 2 to 8 p.m. and offers tours for school field trips as well. Learn more about New Orleans muralist Brandan “B. Mike” Odums and Studio BE at bmike.com.
About the Interviewer/Contributor
Tyree C. Worthy is a NOLA-based event curator and news publisher. He does copyediting for Dillard University and news editing for publications and advertisers local to New Orleans. You can find out more at @itsmetyree on Instgram and tcworthy.com