This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.
NEW ORLEANS — Usually, as groups of schoolchildren file through Studio BE here, they tip back their heads to gaze at the massive portraits of blackness painted by artist Brandan Odums, known as BMike — of civil-rights activists, Black Panthers, men mistreated by the criminal justice system, and everyday New Orleanians with important messages.
“I want the kids coming through here to see that they’re worthy of being painted 12 feet tall with a halo, or just with beautiful colors,” said BMike, 34. “I want to challenge the way people see things.”
His work is motivated both by national incidents and by New Orleans’s history of police violence against black citizens. A 2011 Department of Justice report said the city’s police department had “a clear pattern of unconstitutional uses of force.”
Chronicles of this mistreatment, compounded with high rates of wrongful convictions, can be viewed on the walls of Studio BE, like portraits of Angola 3 prisoners, Black Panther activists and cultural critics like the Free Southern Theater playwright Kalamu ya Salaam, who pushed back against the New Orleans Police Department.
BMike takes societal misinterpretations, tropes, and stereotypes and flips them, creating images of revolutionaries, artists and social-justice figures, often placed in unexpected settings.
Now, five years after an arts benefactor handed over the use of a former coffee warehouse to BMike, allowing him to found Studio BE there, he is known nationally for his work. He collaborates with some of the nation’s highest-profile activists and artists, including Colin Kaepernick, the director Ava DuVernay, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and the singer Usher.
Still, BMike’s family, including his mother, who is a native of New Orleans, keeps him humble. “My mom be like, ‘Oh, he draws. That what he do — he draws,’” he said. “And if I think about it, that is what I do. I don’t want it to be mysterious.”
BMike in front of Studio BE, a 35,000-square-foot former warehouse near railroad tracks, about a mile downriver from the French Quarter. His hoodie is printed with one of his favorite catchphrases: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” He attended high school about a block away, studying classical painting at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
In the gallery’s first room, BMike created a corridor of images about incidents with police, starting with some historical images of the Algiers 7, a deadly police-brutality case in the early 1980s. But an artist’s duty is to reflect the times, BMike said, quoting the singer Nina Simone. And so several years ago, after the police shot and killed a number of people, most of them young men, he painted portraits of some of the dead. “I was seeing all these images of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Oscar Grant and seeing these horrific images of their bodies,” he said.
He decided to use it as an opportunity to paint what he wished could have happened, he said. He added halos behind their heads and the signs “I’m a Man,” first carried by striking garbagemen who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. “That affirms their humanity,” BMike said. “The halos behind their heads also affirm their value.”
A student from KIPP Morial Primary at an exhibit where a small, handmade basketball court is used to remind gallery visitors that, for young black men, the criminal-district courthouse was much more of a probability than professional basketball. A sign along the edge of the court reads: “1/3 black males will go to prison in their lifetime. 3/10,000 will go to the NBA.”
From the entrance of the second gallery, it appears as though a long, continuous wall is painted with a single image, of Coretta Scott King facing her husband, Dr. King. Instead, walking closer, it becomes apparent the image is a diptych: each spouse is painted on a separate section of wall with a large space between them.
“You ask, ‘What does that space represent? Because, as you investigate love, as you investigate their relationship, you see that this gap represents so much,” BMike said. “And Coretta is looking at him like, ‘I see you, but I see you.’ It’s no secret in terms of what people have said about Dr. King, in terms of some of his flaws. For so long, we’ve done a disservice to ourselves and to his legacy by trying to pretend as if he was superhuman. And we built this pedestal for him that he didn’t build for himself.”
The third gallery is built around a sculptural depiction of Hurricane Katrina, its storm clouds and its houses, submerged beneath the water. In one corner, a home’s living room is painted purple to about 5 feet high, representing the floodwater lines that crept up most walls, after 80 percent of the city’s houses flooded. “I’m exploring this conversation about New Orleans and what it means to be here,” BMike said. “The responsibility of being here and knowing that, you know, so many people were displaced and yet we’re here and what does that mean.”
The puddle of water that is often part of that exhibit is unintended — it comes from a roof leak. “There was a point in time where we would shop-vac the water out. Because anytime it rains heavy, that’ll happen,” BMike said. “But it kept happening. So we decided, ‘This is supposed to be here.’”
BMike portrays a well-known New Orleans tattoo artist, Taz. Instead of painting Taz’s actual body ink, BMike made up the images that appear on his chest, including a portrait of Dr. King on his left chest, below the words “We Shall Overcome.” Others show similar fighters and strivers. “So when you investigate the tattoos on his body, you see this reverence for the past, the sacrifices of the past and all these people — men and women — who joined the struggle so that Taz could even be the rebellious spirit that he is.”
KIPP Morial students explore the studio, twisting the heads and bodies of sculptures to create unexpected combinations.
In the third gallery, which focuses on water, BMike painted an iconic image of a neighbor girl named Brooke, as part of his internal conversation about Katrina. (It is the same girl whose image is painted onto the outside of the warehouse.) “I was thinking about how, in New Orleans, the term Katrina has become a bookmark of sorts. Whenever you mention a moment and people ask, ‘Was that before or after Katrina?’
“And so I was thinking about Brooke, who is now 5 years old. That bookmark doesn’t exist for her personally. The idea is that she is inheriting this space. How will she fight for it? How will she allow it to be changed? So in the context of the neighborhoods that are shifting and how we deal with housing and Airbnbs, she’s the one who will grow up in a new New Orleans.”
The ship that emerges from a wall in the third gallery is left to interpretation, though it’s painted across the hull with the word “refugees,” a term used to describe Katrina evacuees, who saw it as a slur. This boat, a collaboration with the sculptor Rontherin Ratliff, may or may not be a reminder of that.
“It could be a Middle Passage boat, it could be a refugee boat, it could be Noah’s Ark,” BMike said. “The boat could represent that idea as well as just the metaphor of what it was like to be called ‘refugees’ after Katrina.” Several feet away, a lighted sign on the wall above bouquets of flowers reads, “You are still here.”