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Review: Studio BE

Brandan Odums’ murals inspired by the civil rights movement



Brandan Odums is not known for thinking small. In 2013, the 30-year-old artist, activist and music video producer transformed the Florida housing development in the 9th Ward into a massive collaborative graffiti venue. He called it Project BE, and while it was off-limits to the public, photos of its vividly painted walls circulated widely on social media and beyond. In 2014, he undertook Exhibit BE, a more accessible transformation of a sprawling, abandoned West Bank housing complex that drew thousands of visitors to its public events. Now his 2016 Studio BE metamorphosis of a 30,000 square foot Bywater warehouse into an eloquent ad hoc civil and human rights museum reveals a degree of depth and nuance far beyond his earlier efforts. Although rendered with the typical graffiti medium of spray paint, his vision owes much to social realism and pop art — an unusually art-historical orientation that should come as no surprise considering Odums is a New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts alum.   Some images are painted directly on the rough warehouse walls, while more finely finished works appear on wall-size panels. I Am the Greatest depicts Muhammad Ali duking it out in the ring paired with a cutaway of the boxer confronted by cops in a street protest. Prelude to Love (pictured) features Eldridge Cleaver's image overlaying excerpts from his letter to Beverly Axelrod in a work illustrating the remarkably contemplative nature of this exhibit. In evocative portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lennon and the Dalai Lama — and young black or white kids rendered with the glow of Russian Orthodox icons — Odums conveys wonder and perplexity at life in America today. Invoking the ephemerality of the daily news cycle leavened with a belief in the timeless power of love, Studio BE is a massive, if temporary, monument to art's capacity for healing and transcendence in this often turbulent place and time.

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