I chatted with Brandan “B-mike” Odums via e-mail a few years earlier for an article I was writing for Scalawag Magazine, but since then his work has become even more well known, if that is possible: he already had a large following in and out of New Orleans for his street art and larger than life paintings informed by African American history, but since one of his pieces was featured on OWN’s Queen Sugar, his popularity has soared. While I had seen some of B-mike’s murals around the city, I had never been to Studio Be, the cavernous warehouse in the Bywater neighborhood, filled to the brim with enormous paintings, many nearly reaching the ceiling.
My visit was for fun and for research: I am interested in the ways artists have engaged in prisoner rights activism and B-mike’s work has an incredibly political tone: he painted a mural of Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox and the quotes and images of African American writers and activists feature heavily in his work.
His studio features quotes from people like Audre Lorde and Muhammad Ali. It features huge paintings of MLK, Fred Hampton, and other prominent figures in African American history. It struck me as I walked through that, though his art certainly has an activist bent, he was also making a historical intervention. He framed African American activists as heroes, connected the struggle of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin to that of Martin Luther King Jr and centered books as source material and inspiration. He featured the words of Black Panther Party members alongside the words
of prominent intersectional scholars. B-mike’s work was engaging with the theoretical and political work of these African American activists and attempting to educate visitors, particularly children, who might be unfamiliar with this history.
In the gift shop of Bestudio one can buy the usual: t-shirts, prints, tote bags, and other souvenirs with prints of his artwork on them. B-mike doesn’t throw away his paint cans, but instead paints them with images of African American activists, writers, and artists. I couldn’t afford the real thing, but I did pick up a printed can of Fred Hampton on my way out. The store also featured a selection of books B-mike deemed important: Revolutionary Suicide by Huey Newton, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, a few works by James Baldwin, and other works in radical African American history.
Bmike intentionally drew connections between very well known African American leaders like MLK to the Black Lives Matter movement and mass incarceration. He emphasized the importance of lesser known activists like Fred Hampton. B-mike didn’t entertain differences between “violent” and “non-violent” activism, acceptable and unacceptable history, but emphasized the shared intellectual and artistic lineage of his work.
I don’t usually write about street artists in this space, but like many of my posts, I think Bmike’s work should make us think about the boundaries we have drawn around professional history. B-mike might not be a professional historian in any traditional sense, but his work is fighting “alternative facts,” engaging in theoretical discussions, and giving access to important radical and intellectual arguments in spaces and to people who might not be exposed to historical monographs, or even the Washington Post’s wonderful Made by History series.