Interview with Exhibit Be Founder Brandan Odums

Exhibit Be is an artistic endeavour of epic proportions. Helmed by artist and film-maker Brandan “BMike” Odums, with logistical support from freelance editor and web-content creator Lydia Nichols and arts and museum curator Lana Meyon, it is an ode to how art disturbs the waters of our contentment without cornering us with guilt. Located in Algiers, a quiet suburb of New Orleans across the Mississippi river from the downtown core, Exhibit Be, a collaboration of 30 plus artists, transformed the abandoned Woodlands Apartment Complex, a five building, five-story apartment complex, into a giant street art installation.

A recent history of the location goes as such: 14 years ago, the complex was sold to Anthony Reginelli, a local entrepreneur and sports figure for just under a million dollars. The tenants were middle and lower class black families who were struggling with the deteriorating conditions of the complex despite their repeated pleas to Reginelli to address the issues. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Reginelli went AWOL, leaving the tenants to deal with encroaching squatters, drug dens and increasing violence. Though the complex endured minimal structural damage from the storm, Reginelli pocketed 6.3 million dollars from his insurer and lost all interest in managing the property. By October of 2006, he sold the property out from under the tenants to another developer, the Johnson Property Group. Over 100 families on the property received a nine-day eviction notice and by the end of the following month, were forced to evacuate the premises. The urgency of their plight remained stark on the property to this day, as the remnants of their lives sat rotting on the property and gave the entire place an eerie feel of lives and dreams rudely interrupted.

To the average person, the apartment unit doors boarded up with plywood, the blown out windows, the dust and mould covered interiors filled with left over furniture, children’s toys, cribs and kitchen utensils would give an intense post-apocalyptic feel. However, real artists are alchemists, and as such, on Odums’ encounter with the space, he instantly saw the magic in the debris. An outgoing introvert of sorts, he was looking for a space to get away and paint, un-heeded by the anti-street art vigilantes of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). They had driven him and his friends off his first street art installation, Project Be in the Florida Housing Projects of the Bywater, upper 9th ward area. And here was the perfect canvas, miles and miles of blank walls both inside and outside the units begging to be revived with the power of paint and the artists’ imagination.

Initially, Odums had not intended to blast every wall with art. A run in with one of the board members of the current owners while he was painting by himself sparked a conversation full of potential. Unlike the previous owner, the board member encouraged him to keep working. Given this creative carte blanche and protection from the authorities, Odums quickly went to work. He invited over 30 artists to make use of the space and utilise all the debris in the space to repurpose it into art that respects the history of the complex and those that called it home while allowing for artistic innovation. “There’s this idea of preservation of culture versus progress, and the notion is that progress is anti-preservation, and I don’t feel that it has to be that way,” he explains on a recent walk through City Park.

Bringing together a huge number of artists, all with their own ideas about the role of street art vs. graffiti and its role in society, was no easy feat, and Odums credits the unfaltering support of Lydia Nichols and Lana Meyon to realise the magnitude of his dream. “The problem with turning lead into gold, is that everybody loves gold,” he added. Odums and his friends worked tirelessly for two weeks, fielding numerous challenges and turning the proverbial lead into gold. The paintings pay homage to the images and messages of revolutionaries of the civil rights movement, local activists, artists and musicians, and most importantly, local youth who have perished in gang violence. It was a stark space before the project, but this time around, the rawness came from a place of healing, of reconciling the violence the artists saw around them with messages of resilience, community spirit, love and liberation.

“I’m excited about what Exhibit Be is doing and what graffiti is doing in this city. Because graffiti is confrontational by it’s very nature. This is not to say there isn’t art in galleries, there are some cool conversations happening in those spaces. But New Orleans people, the people that I know at least, are not going to galleries. They are going to Jazz Fest, and there, every single piece of art is selling New Orleans, and there is so much more we can say as artists. This is a city with so much culture, you’re always fighting for room artistically. If you’re not painting sec-ond lines, or Mardi Gras Indians or jazz paintings people are less inclined to buy your work because that’s not what they came to New Orleans for. Yet street art interacts with the community directly. The people who live in the neighbourhood come by regularly to look at the art. The kids ride their bikes through the property and ask questions about who the faces painted on the walls are. That’s when you have the chance to educate them, to spark curiosity. That’s why I encourage young New Orleans artists to create without having to sell the city.”

And true to their vision, Odums, Nichols and Meyon worked tirelessly for the duration of the exhibit until its closing in the first week of January 2015. Over 15,000 people visited the site, and the organisers made time for school tours for kids, ending each one with painting lessons and spending intentional time with those that could be the future generation of artists. Other local artists, musicians and fashion designers in the city also utilised the space for photo shoots, music videos and creative endeavors.

Their hard work did not go unnoticed. The exhibit came to a close with an unprecedented block party on 17 January, on Martin Luther King day. The thousands of people in attendance were treated to a dynamic party that drew celebrities such as actor, motivational speaker and author Hill Harper, hip hop artists David Banner, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu and New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and the New Breed Brass Band. It was a site to behold, as the air reverberated with the music and laughter, and the audience couldn’t help but feel inspired and humbled by how much lead poisoning the organisers had to endure for this golden moment. The writing was on the wall, we can survive without art, but we won’t thrive, and thriving is becoming our ancestor’s wildest dreams.

Find out more about Exhibit Be at www.brandanodums.com.

Sol Goshu

Credits
All image courtesy of Sean Ambrose.

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