A native New Orleans street artist and activist, Brandan 'BMike' Odums is a trailblazer who uses art to mobilise and educate his local community. Growing up in NOLA and now inspiring a new generation of artists, we caught up with BMike to discover how it all began, and his tips for getting to the heart and soul of this iconic city…
Tell us about your favourite piece of street art in New Orleans, and why (this can be your work, or someone else’s)
One of my favourite pieces is Terrance Osborne’s mural, that’s on the side of the Hilton Hotel right on the riverfront. It’s basically his own version of the New Orleans streets, like an aerial view. I like it because T’s was the first mural I saw and it always feels magical to me, like “How did he do that, how did he just get up there and do it?” There where all these questions when I was young looking at that all the time, because it just felt impossible and I think that’s always in the back of my head in terms of what murals can look like, in terms of this huge space covered in paint, that they can occupy.
Can I say one of mine, it is inappropriate?! There is a mural I did in New Orleans East neighbourhood which was the slowest area to be rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, and even now it still has a lot of issues.
I partnered with a bunch of community folk and we did this mural that we called The Peace Wall – it’s about 140ft long, 70ft tall, and I basically redid the creation story between Adam and God, and people who are from the neighbourhoods painted on the wall.
It took me like 2 weeks to do and it was just fun, it was a huge challenge but it was fun to see how people gathered round it and how that became important for that neighbourhood, they really needed that boost.
How has street art helped in the rebuilding of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina?
I think identity is important and one of the main conversations around rebuilding New Orleans is trying to assert ourselves in the midst of a city that’s changing. Some changes are good, and some changes are a little bit negative, and I think art at its best allows people to tell their story, it allows them to project their identity or the identity of that place, and that’s what I feel like street art does. You can argue that it definitely aesthetically makes things prettier, but I think more than that it’s about people seeing their story reflected on the wall. The names of the neighbourhoods are changing, the demographics of the neighbourhoods are changing, so I think murals are a way of maintaining the story.
And the best part is, it’s accessible. We see how powerful images are in public spaces, whether that’s billboards, promotional campaigns or political campaigns, but I think murals have a way to make art accessible to people who don’t go to galleries.
And also more than that, I think it’s about being able to show people why these spaces are valuable, and that’s the type of art I like to do – something that tells a story and makes people feel good about where they are.
What programs are in place in New Orleans to allow young people to express themselves through the arts, and why is this so important?
New Orleans is interesting. Take music for example, in middle schools and elementary schools there are a lot that have marching bands, and you might think that’s such a simple thing, or not a sensational thing, but until you go and hear these marching bands perform and you see how seriously these kids are taking, you realise they’re picking up the culture. That’s beautiful to see, how serious and how talented and how amazing they are. Then you see schools like NOCCA that’s all about the arts, whether that be visual arts, performing arts or creative writing, and you understand how important art is in the conversation of culture.
Everybody loves New Orleans for the culture and most of the culture is centred around what’s created, and I feel like the gatekeepers of that are the next generation. It’s important that those ideas are passed on and it’s not exclusive – it’s not like you have to be in the right place to pick it up, having it in schools makes it accessible.
I know that’s the reason I began to take art seriously, because I was in the right place with instructors and peers who were like “yo, this is something you should take seriously” and I think that’s something that happens all the time within an education context. Kids are realising that “yo, there’s a lot of power in being able to play this horn or being able to draw this picture” and so that’s why I’ve always been interested in making sure that that gets passed on.
Whether that’s mentors or even just understanding what it looks like – even if it’s not a hands on approach. Even this space for example (Studio BE) allows young people to realise that this is a possible thing, and I love when kids come here and are like “I could do that” and I’m like “yes you can. Exactly. Do it better than me, do it stronger than me”. That’s the vibe that I was created from, seeing it being done and understanding that it’s possible. Part of the charm of New Orleans is that there is no shortage of these stories. You see amazing, talented, brilliant people exercising that daily, and it’s important that we continue to foster and promote that in the next generation.
What is your favourite way to spend a weekend in your city?
What New Orleans does super well is getting people together. There’s always a reason for the streets to be filled with people for the same reason. Whether it’s a second line, neighbours stepping outside on their porch, or just seeing people coming together to listen to music; celebrating, dancing, drinking, being merry – we do all this really well. For whatever the reason – there doesn’t even have to be a reason – sometimes it’s a holiday, a festival, or sometimes it’s a sad reason like a funeral, but that’s what I enjoy most about spending time in this city. So my ideal weekend would be in some way sharing a public space with a stranger or a neighbour. It’s a charming city, and it doesn’t take long for you to feel welcome.
There are so many gems in this city, restaurants I love, stores I love, but the beauty always comes from the unplanned things that happen here. Just walking the streets and stumbling upon an amazing performance or an amazing event. Those are the beautiful things.
This city found a way to avoid “the race” or the “rat race” where everybody is trying to be something or go someplace. This city has found a way to kind of avoid that and just be. There’s a lot of charm in that. People don’t require much here to be happy here, which is amazing. And you can definitely feel that in the air.
Where is your favourite place to catch live music in New Orleans?
I think right now, there’s a spot called The Jazz Market, it’s on O. C. Haley (Oretha Castle Haley Blvd), and it’s a newer venue built specifically for jazz sounds, so live jazz music. Every Wednesday night there is an open-mic of sorts where all these young talented musicians are gathering. It’s just so dope because I go there and I feel refreshed; I see this energy around the excitement of performance. And the talent is top notch, that’s a given. So that would be what I’m currently engaged in – like if I’m going out it’s probably to that spot.
Other than that, I enjoy Frenchman, I enjoy The Blue Nile…every Wednesday night a brass band named New Breed performs – they’re friends of mine, and they’re amazing.
What is the best part about people from all over the country, even the world, coming to your exhibitions?
I think in New Orleans there’s this desire to show off in a way – the musicians they want people to hear them, and as an artist I want people to see my work, but the challenge with doing that in New Orleans is that people can sometimes be numb to it. People who are born in New Orleans and raised here and lived their whole lives here, so they can take for granted the fact that this person is an amazing horn player, this person is an amazing singer, this person is an amazing chef.
So when you get people with fresh eyes and fresh tastes and fresh ears you really get a chance to have these rich conversations, to have these rich experiences because they’re seeing it from a different perspective.
And I imagine it would be the same way if I went to a different city or a different country, so that’s the energy that’s really infections and explosive in a way. When I get people that come in here from out of town, or out of the country, it’s always fun because I feed off of their energy.
Want to see BMike’s full guide to his home hood of Bywater and beyond? Featuring the best live music venues, old school record stores, obviously heaps of art and more, this is basically all you need to see New Orleans like a real local. Head here for more.