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Studio BE, love letter to people of post-Katrina New Orleans, by B-Mike Odums

Ilana Napoli visits New Orleans and sees an inspiring exhibition by Brandan “B-Mike” Odums (artist, filmmaker, educator, founder of 2-Cent, a youth arts education initiative for black children in the south). The solo show, called "Studio BE" is an ongoing project that is a tribute to black history/culture and resilience in post-Katrina New Orleans communities, opportunity.

"My Lil' Generation," 12' x 9', spray paint. Photo courtesy of the artist's website.
“My Lil’ Generation,” 12′ x 9′, spray paint. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Located in a massive warehouse in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, an art space called Studio BE is organized and run by New Orleans artist, filmmaker and educator, Brandan “B-Mike” Odums. Over the last several years, Odums organized two shows — installments of what he calls his “BE Series.” First, taking place in an abandoned housing project in the Ninth Ward, was Project BE. Following was Exhibit BE (covered by Artblog) in the abandoned Woodlands Apartment complex in Algiers, New Orleans.

The final installment of the series, Studio BE, is a warehouse displaying a solo show of spray paint works and installations by Odums; the show is part tribute to black history and culture, part monument to the trauma and resilience in post-Katrina New Orleans communities, and part commentary on the meeting of place, time, and opportunity.

Ephemeral Eternal is the aptly named exhibition that resides in Studio BE. The space and show first opened in February 2016 with the intention to be a short-lived monument giving voice to the enduring memory of achievements and injustices faced by African Americans. The show was never meant to be permanent, but two years and a whole lot of press coverage later, Studio BE’s website still reads “closing: TBA.”

The Eternal, the Ephemeral, and the Spray Paint Can

This show is inspired by time.Through my appreciation of time through the rich moments that decorate our history and my fear of the idea that each moment has its expiration date… My attraction to the spray can came from my attraction to the ephemeral. This project is ephemeral. Be ephemeral. Be eternal.
Ephemeral Eternal Wall text

Ephemeral Eternal opens with a series of larger than life portraits of black history icons accompanied by poignant quotes attributed to them covering entire walls which form a maze-like structure. Nearby are familiar images of victims of police brutality such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, brightly painted, haloed, and holding signs declaring “I am a man.” This show is full of color, and the many portraits walk the line between realism and graphism. Dynamic, confident images of people of color fill the show accompanied by assertions like “I am a man”. “I am still here”. “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream”. Before seeing the show, I noticed many people in New Orleans wearing clothing decorated with these phrases without knowing this is what they referenced. After leaving, these sad, yet defiant and proud statements left the longest impression.

Installation view at Studio BE. Photo courtesy of the artist's website.
Installation view at Studio BE. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

Katrina and Self Love

In addition to the many paintings, Ephemeral Eternal has several more experimental sculptural and interactive installations that are loosely split by theme. Befitting a graffiti artist, B-Mike uses his art to foster an experience; the art may not be around forever, but its memory and the emotions it inspires stick with you long after you leave. Repurposed photo booths invite viewer participation with instructions to write yourself a love letter and throw your fears “to the flame”. Coloring book pages with images from the show are scattered across several picnic tables next to a wall covered in ones that have been colored by children who visit through 2-Cent, the youth education initiative founded by Odums. 2-Cent was created to bring arts initiatives and opportunities to black children in the South and has him traveling around the region conducting art workshops at predominantly black schools. Nearby sits an education-equality themed installation: beaten up desks, chalkboards, and lockers covered with graffiti and messages about positivity and self-worth, which sit next to freestanding painted wooden totemic images of black children as doctors, scholars, chefs, and more, created by the artist.

Installation view at Studio BE. Photo courtesy of the artist's website.
Installation view at Studio BE. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.

A huge part of the warehouse is devoted to works related to Katrina radiating from the declaration “you are still here”. An installation of living room furniture is painted purple up to the height of the storm surge in New Orleans, set next to a wrenching quote from New Orleans Artist and rapper Arnold “MidCityAb” Burks about the loss of his pre-Katrina life and how he survived the flooding on a roof for three days. The bow of a large wooden boat inscribed with the words “refugee,” “Noah’s ark,” “middle passage,” and “survive” sits on the edge of the room, overlooking in the center a miniature representation of a flooding New Orleans made by the artist with reflective foil and small tents.

For a native New Yorker like me, the collective trauma brought on by a disaster (like Katrina, like Super Storm Sandy or 9/11) and the subsequent rapid gentrification of a vulnerable city hits close to home. B-Mike has addressed the displacement in New Orleans in much of his work through decisions on location, choosing abandoned buildings and housing projects as the sites of his installations and targeting the New Orleans black community as his audience.

The Message

Ephemeral Eternal is a huge show and, at times, can feel a bit disjointed. Certainly, some works are more successful than others. However, the art and artist feel closer to the viewer than in a traditional gallery. After learning more about B-Mike, I get the feeling that this show is more about the message than the art. In many ways, Ephemeral Eternal is a heavy show that mourns the loss of black lives due to natural disaster and America’s long legacy of institutional violence. Simultaneously, it is also a show full of positivity and love for black culture and people, inspiring visitors to leave with a sense of self love, pride, and community. The artist’s lofty talk of the eternal and the ephemeral reflects that pride and the anxiety that, through no fault of your own, any moment might be your last.

“Ephemeral Eternal” is on semi-permanent display at Studio BE in New Orleans (2941 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70117). More about Mike Odums and Studio BE here.

B-Mike, "Baptized", 12' x 9', spray paint. Photo courtesy of the artist's website.
B-Mike, “Baptized”, 12′ x 9′, spray paint. Photo courtesy of the artist’s website.