When a child applies color to a wall, the creativity of that child is usually nurtured, though often within the confines of a much smaller canvas that will not offend the sensibilities of a civilized society. When the child becomes an adult and applies color to a wall, he or she is considered disrespectful of the same society that once encouraged that creativity, wild curiosity and honest dialog about life. The individual is fined or jailed and told that the walls do not require their particular choice of color. They are alienated, labeled a nuisance, threatened with arrest and accused of disturbing the peace. But what happens when there was never any peace to disturb? When, without color, the world would be devoid of all signs of life? Especially black life? What happens is that you follow your gut and use your talents to paint familiar faces and bodies on the walls of the abandoned buildings that your people used to populate. Places they were washed away from when the levees broke and the tide got too high. Places they could not afford to come back to after the storm — if they survived the storm. You canonize the martyred black and brown upsetters of every era at the height of resistance to remind the people that are left of their spirits. And you never apologize for emptying your cans across the the city’s walls or using all of the colors in your palette to breathe the blood, and humanity and life force energy back into the city that care allegedly forgot. Because you didn’t forget. And because you refuse to stop being so loud, the world won’t forget either. Because no one can unsee what catches the eye. This is Brandan “B-Mike” Odums. Visual artist, filmmaker and founder of the urban art space in the city of New Orleans dubbed StudioBE. The street artist that squeezes beauty from the bandos and prefers his resistance in living color.
– Karas Lamb
Philadelphia Printworks: Do you consider yourself an activist? How do you define activism or resistance?
Brandan Odums: I have a weird relationship with that word because I feel like the idea of being an activist should be innate in everyone. The idea of activism is basically believing that you’re valuable enough to defend yourself or defend people like you. I am an activist in the way that I value my people and my community. From that value, is where you get upset and get motivated to respond when you realize things are not supposed to be a certain way. So yes, I am an activist, but I don’t like wearing it as a title. It isn’t a toupee or a costume. It is a part of existence.
PPW: What was the beginning of your life and work in the activist space?
BO: It probably started from my relationships with my elders. My father was in the military so I was able to see an individual working in service to the country. His job description was to defend or stand for or give his life on behalf of an idea. Seeing that he took that very seriously was the first example of that kind of formula. He later became a pastor when I was young and I saw that same commitment to service later in relation to religion. When religion is practiced there is this idea of service and being a servant to satisfy faith. As I began to develop myself, the spaces where I saw that idea in action that resonated the most were in the historical struggles for civil rights and black liberation. That’s where I saw myself. I didn’t see myself in the military fighting for the idea of this country. I didn’t see myself directly as a clergy or within the walls of a church. Much of my motivation came from the examples of the past, being fascinated with certain narratives in history, lionizing certain individuals in history and measuring myself against that. Asking, “Is this possible?” Then learning about Chairman Fred Hampton and realizing that this is possible. Someone can be this effective and make these waves. From there I started to look for ways to contribute. Looking for what I had to offer to the legacy of activism. That was around the time that I started to find my voice as an artist and filmmaker. I realized it made the most sense to use those gifts and talents in those spaces. So that was my start but it was definitely something that was encouraged through direct intervention from my elders. People I know personally and people I’ve read about. It was definitely something I learned from observation.
PPW: As a visual artist producing works that don’t always occupy the traditional gallery space, does your relationship with social commentary and resistance extend to choices about the places where your work lives as much as it does your subject matter?
BO: Yeah. Being from New Orleans, especially after Hurricane Katrina, the idea of space became a large part of a lot of our thought processes locally. Gentrification is happening in other cities across the country, but in New Orleans gentrification was being presented as a solution to a very, very tragic situation. That created more urgency around the conversation. We were seeing gentrification being applied to spaces almost as a power move. Space became a big part of the battle code, if you will. This was where the most important conversation was taking place. It became a situation where I had to figure out how to use what resources I had to insert myself into the conversation and contribute to it. I have a lot of amazing friends and contemporaries that were out protesting in the streets and marching about what was happening. For me, I felt that if I could communicate those ideas and some of the energy of the idea of value through the spaces that I paint, then that could be effective as well. It definitely was about the space. It was about asking, “Why is this here?” “Why is this permitted to exist?” “What used to be here?” “Why is this apartment complex empty when there’s a housing crisis in this city?” “Who is allowing this space to remain dormant?” It was concern about these types of things, but using the art to bring attention to it so that people could realize the potential of the spaces. The community mostly, because it was by and through the community that these projects were able to exist. So it was about figuring out, in the midst of transitions, how can we take ownership of our communities. My motivation was to intimately examine space and how change was happening at the expense of outsiders not valuing the spaces as they were. For me, the paint can became a way to assign value to the spaces that we all love that people outside of our communities didn’t find the same value in. I wanted to paint a picture that tells a story or boosts the identity within the space so people from outside can view it and be encouraged to embrace the images of beautiful black women and men. Hopefully in the process it would direct them to the idea that this space was also dominated by beautiful black women and men.
PPW: When you think about your work, do you ever consider the shelf life of the pieces given the destruction of public art landmarks, as casualties of gentrification? Think NYC’s Five Points, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar factory — even your own #ProjectBe. How do you address or process that?
BO: The idea of the impermanence was always something that made me more comfortable and confident in doing the work. Initially it was a crutch, in a way. I used to overthink so much when I created on the permanency of it. About whether what I was creating deserved to exist in the context of forever. With that type of pressure you’ll never feel completely satisfied that you accomplished the goal of creating something that deserved to last. For me, there was a lot of poetry in just existing in the moment and not having the weight of worrying about what it is going to look like tomorrow or what is going to happen to this piece next year. That is where I initially found and started to develop my voice in those spaces. Once I accepted that things would not last, I found the freedom to move and express myself. From there, I started to think about why that was and what was really liberating about the moment — about the temporary and ephemeral nature of the work that I was creating. That’s when I started to understand that there’s this sort of beauty in the moment. That’s why all of the projects I’ve been doing have been anchored by the word “be.” What does it mean to be in that particular moment? What does it mean to be fully existing at a particular point in time? I understand that it also draws more attention to a project when there’s this idea of impermanence. There’s more urgency around people wanting to experience it because it forces them to appreciate it. You look at a wall differently when you realize that it won’t be around after a certain date. That is encouragement to take in all of the different layers. That’s true to life and it’s true to time. We will not be here forever. There’s always different parallels there that I’ve been compelled to explore. Now with the work, I’ve moved to focusing on that as a theme. What does it mean to exist as something temporary? What does it mean that these narratives happened in these temporary moments, but yet they have been allowed to exist forever? There’s a large painting of Martin Luther King Jr. right when you walk into the studio and that’s one of the first conversations that we have — here’s a man who lived a very long time ago, yet everyone who walks into this building can identify with who that is. And ideally everyone’s kids, and their kids, will continue to identify with this man. So here is this moment that was so short, that was so ephemeral and so impermanent — but it is also eternal. So those are some of the themes that I’ve been exploring and beginning to understand about the work. I’m curious about how it lends itself to a specific type of power and derives power from impermanence. I love the fact that things are impermanent because it gives me fuel to keep working. If someone were to come to New Orleans and ask to see what I’ve been working on for the past few years, that would be difficult to show. I know that the list of living pieces is getting shorter and shorter. I love the fact that that aspect of what I do forces me to keep working.
PPW: You work in and beautify abandoned buildings in your city. Can you speak about the condition of urban blight in post-Katrina New Orleans and the role that that plays in your work?
BO: It definitely allows a certain type of canvas to exist. Especially as a street artist. Prior to Katrina I would not have identified as a street artist. The streets were not a space that I actively saw as a canvas. My idea of communication didn’t exist in that format. I saw my camera as a means to communicate. Everything was spoken through the lens. After Katrina and the blight increased, it became a space to communicate. I also saw how graffiti writers and street artists from all over the world were finding opportunities to create a platform from that blight. It made so much sense to use that as a canvas and communicate on it. There were so many different layers that spoke to what was wrong with the blight and the awful things that it encouraged after the storm. People were displaced and never allowed to come back because they were never allowed to find affordable housing. There were so many people who saw Katrina as an opportunity to reconfigure the way affordable housing existed in New Orleans — tearing down projects and building up mixed income houses that drastically reduced the footprint of affordable housing as it had existed prior to the storm. There were a lot of really ill things that happened as a result of all the blight and other damage that came from that event, but also it forced the black community to figure out how to articulate why those spaces were valuable. Which is something that we took for granted. It is unfortunate that we even had to have that conversation, but it forced us to learn to communicate why this neighborhood does not need to be touched. How do we communicate that this neighborhood, even with all of its problems, is beautiful? These are things that were a matter of fact before the storm, but it forced a lot of us to have these conversations and for me, those conversations took place on the walls. Had it not been for those walls, I don’t think I would be using paint cans to communicate.
PPW: Looking at your work before the storm and your work after, how do you think it has changed? How have you evolved as an artist?
BO: It is an unfortunate blessing, but I think we are all blessed to be a part of this awakening of sorts. Of this new black arts movement in New Orleans — but also across the diaspora — as black artists begin to understand and acknowledge that their voices have weight. Across the arts, these voices are needed and so the scene is popping in a way. There are a lot of people that are emerging and saying “Look! You’re going to listen to me. Listen to my voice and hear what I have to say about how I love my people and how I love myself.” That’s what I love about Philadelphia Printworks. These platforms and pieces are emerging in this moment when we need to make these statements. It is unfortunate that we have to make these statements, but it is beautiful the way they are manifesting. As a result, I developed and grew because of that stimulation. As a result of being in these moments where we are forced to say “Black Lives Matter,” where we are forced to say “I Can’t Breathe,” where we are forced to say “Say Her Name.” All of these different things have created a specific type of development in all of us. I also believe that with age comes experience and the ability to learn from mistakes. I’m at a point in my life where I’m more conscious about where I paint and how what I paint adds value to that space. But more, what then does the owner of that particular property want to do with that new value and how does that benefit the community? Once the owner of that property saw how those walls added value, if they were not in tune with the community they would immediately transfer that into a new vision of what that space could be. That was not what I was interested in being a part of. Now, when I paint I want to know who the owner of the building is, what is their vision for that space, who does the vision include, etc. These are things that came from making decisions to unconsciously paint on walls that belonged to people that didn’t necessarily have the best interests of the community in mind. I am trying to continue to grow and continue to learn from the new leaders to be as effective as I can be and that is a continual process.
PPW: Does the rich culture and history of the city of New Orleans remain a constant in your work?
BO: I deeply draw upon the past. I’m a big fan of history and I often say that I use history as a cheat code. History informs us about the present and our possibility. There is no obstacle that we face today that we can’t to look to history as a point reference for how to confront and overcome. New Orleans is a city that is rich in African history and the history of the diaspora — the people that came here and were allowed to preserve a culture that still weaves its way through everything we do today. We are surrounded by history in New Orleans and I definitely seek to share my love of history through my work. To provoke questions and conversation that will allow me to discuss more and hopefully educate people curious to know about the scenes and figures in the work. I’m hoping to make some of these stories more visually exciting. History is a huge starting point for me creatively. I’m definitely a fan of Afro-futurism but I feel like there is also so much gold to be dug up from our pasts that could help us to understand and acknowledge how beautiful and how capable we are.
PPW: In documenting the faces and experiences of artists, activists, change makers, citizens and even victims of extrajudicial violence in one central space, have you noticed a change in how your fellow citizens perceive themselves?
BO: Yeah, definitely. That was the motivating factor to keep going — seeing that and really starting to understand the power of art. Looking at how something as simple as painting on the wall could change the way people look at themselves and others. That is the type of artistic alchemy that was always exciting. This alchemy that lended itself to making people feel valuable. There was a school tour that we did at the studio and there was a young, black kid that might have been easily overlooked as a problem child but he was the kid that was excited to discuss his feelings about a particular painting. When we asked why he liked it, he said “Because it looks like me.” That was an experience I never had growing up. There was no art space that I was able to go to where I felt the beauty of myself was reflected on the walls. I’m very conscious of making sure that black people, especially, look at the paintings and see themselves reflected in a way that is beautiful and positive. There’s so much potential in that. Identity is so important and we are constantly bombarded with images that tell us otherwise. These few moments are so profound and powerful because people walk away from my projects feeling empowered, feeling valuable, and feeling like they are human. That is a big part of the motivation of doing this work. That is one of the things that art can do — it can show you and it can show other people why they are valuable.
PPW: Does the presence of StudioBE challenge the traditional salon, gallery, and museum system as an alternative space for major works by an artist of color? How?
BO: I think it does. What I wanted to create was a living space. When people come into StudioBE, I want them to participate in ways they might never get to in a traditional exhibition space. There are not a lot of rules in terms of what you can and cannot do here. There are pieces where you are free to contribute. I want you to take pictures, I want you to do a photoshoot, I want you to ask questions and have a conversation with me about what could or should be. That living nature of it is what challenges the perception of what an art experience can be. It removes the pretense — the wine and cheese — and allows us to be more intentional about how we engage the audience. Also, it challenges conventions because we are completely independent. This was built out of the mud. Six years ago I was painting in the street. There was no transfer of money for art. Now this space has six employees and we are open four days a week. There is also this model of sustainability within black business. I am not obligated to check in with a board of trustees. This is completely independent. The physical nature of it is also an obvious departure. This is not a pristine space. It exists in a warehouse. It has character in a different sort of way. There are also similarities to traditional spaces and as media, the argument could be made, that visual art can still become unattainable in any space. The scale of these pieces speak to that. You cannot take them home. Overall, however, we made it a goal to speak to people that were not typically going to galleries and museums. I think we have been very successful at that. I think people that walk through these doors do not typically walk through the doors of any art space. The reasons they come are varied, but I like the fact that here they are opening themselves up to a whole new experience.
PPW: Have traditional art exhibition spaces, the academy, and pop culture, to a larger degree, traditionally failed or exploited artists of color?
BO: I think that that is the case across the board. The narrative of culture can be very limited when it comes from the top down. It is a very limited perspective of what a culture looks like and that limited perspective is typically all white or stuff created by black people as reinterpreted by white people. That can be extremely frustrating because we see it happening day to day. I agree with two schools of thought about the matter. I agree that we should be critical and demand that these spaces fully reflect us, the greatness of what we create and how it contributes to the overall cultural import of this country — I agree that we should boycott Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys. But I also agree that the Oscars and shows like it were designed to honor white people because they were created by white people. So, we need to continue to uplift and honor ourselves in a way where having them in the picture is never a necessary component of our success. We definitely can do a better job of it, but we have made sure to uplift and praise those in our communities who are the vanguard. Those going against the grain as authors and arbiters of culture. I am where I am now because of the community supporting me and staying in tune with what I was doing even as the art establishment in the city of New Orleans still struggles to grasp me or build a bridge or totally get what I have been doing. I have been existing independent of all of these art institutions in the city. For whatever reason, I haven’t been embraced. I could be critical of that or upset about it, or I could continue to create work and cater to the people that inspire and support what I do. I think the storytellers are not being truthful about how impactful the things that black people create actually are — but the underdog is not always the worst place to be. It is easier to prove people wrong than it is to prove them right. There is a lot of power in that.
PPW: Your polyptych of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Michael Brown has toured the country. It has also appeared in Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Queen Sugar. Obviously, a timely piece given the increase in extrajudicial violence and the killings of men and women of color, how did it make its way to TV?
BO: Those paintings were the first I did in this new project — in StudioBE. It was created without the knowledge that I was going to have this opportunity. It was created because I wanted to recreate images of these men in ways that were more beneficial to me. I was tired of seeing these images of men and women dead in the street, being subdued, etc. I think art has the responsibility to be truthful and the potential to show what is possible. There is the idea of reflecting what actually is but also pointing at what could be. So these paintings were a way to affirm their humanity in that way, being truthful but also pointing at how things could be. The “I Am A Man” signs and the halos were really just a way to affirm their humanity. The response to those paintings has been amazing. There is a Claude McKay quote that says, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs.” There is this idea that pervades when people look at the work, that this was not right. I don’t care how you try to spin the circumstances or demonize the victims, their humanity and the injustice always comes through. The best response was to have Trayvon Martin’s mother stop by to see it and take a picture next to it. It was cool to see her interact with the piece and take ownership of the work as a valid reflection of her son — even though it was a reimagined version of him. Ava DuVernay and I had been in conversation after meeting at Essence Festival a couple of years prior. Her assistant called at one point to let me know that she was planning to stop by to see the studio. She eventually came by, had a tour of the space and was overwhelmed. She asked if I had ever acted before. I said no, then she said she was planning to write me into a script she was working on. I figured she was just talking. Then a couple of weeks later, a producer called. They sent me a script and I got to play myself. Ava is really good at connecting people. She said that people needed to see this space and people needed to know who I was. That was the whole purpose for the scene. She didn’t have to write me into that show, so I’m forever grateful for her doing that and being moved enough by the work to do it. It has been effective. I get a lot of older black women that have seen the space on Queen Sugar that stop by when they come to town. She also wore the “I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams” shirt and posted it on social media. She didn’t credit us at first and all of these bootleg sites started popping up to steal the design and take customers from us. Ava agreed to edit the post but then said she would do one better. A few days later we get a call from Oprah Winfrey saying Ava showed her the shirt. Oprah ordered about 30 shirts for Thanksgiving, made everyone at the dinner table wear it and posted the proper link to the site for people to purchase it. Smalls things like that have been beautiful because they are unexpected. It has been profound and humbling.
PPW: Given that experience, how important do you think it is for artists of color to provide space for and amplify the works of other artists of color?
BO: There is an artist in the city named Ayo Scott. His father is John Scott, who was one of the most influential and successful artists to come out of the city. His signature phrase was “Pass It On.” Anytime he did something for you and you thanked him, his response was “pass it on.” I’m constantly trying to make sure that I do that every day. I benefitted from that so much. I am where I am because my community said “pass it on.” They passed it on to me at different moments — different people who effectively put their hand on my life and passed something on to me. I feel like it is a responsibility we all have and as a community, it is something we’ve done so well because we knew that there was no safety net for us. There were no trust funds. We’ve done that and that is why we have lasted this long and sustained our culture in the ways that we have — because we have passed it on. We see these images of successful black people and we are often critical of whether they are passing it on or how effectively they are doing it. I would say that all of the wealthy or influential black people I know are conscious about the ways in which they are using their platforms and talents to pass something on. I’m super grateful for that idea because I know that I am a product of that and I’m trying to be conscious about doing that all of the time. I’m always engaging the young men and women that are coming through the studio because even just small gestures can help to pass it on.
PPW: Speaking to that piece as well as others in your portfolio, has your work resonated with activist movements or been inspired by today’s advocates for social justice?
BO: It’s both. I don’t formally work with any of them, but there have been moments when I’ve engaged with Black Lives Matter and Amnesty International. Other people and organizations that have been in the moment, responding. I am inspired by all of these individuals. I think everybody has a role to play and I think that effective change happens on many layers. It has been interesting to engage with the mix of people that I have been inspired by. From the political spectrum, for example, I’m good friends with Senator Cory Booker and listening to him has been insightful. Then from the grassroots perspective, listening to my homie Umi Selah from Miami with The Dream Defenders and really being in tune to his organization and what he’s doing. From the musical perspective, speaking to David Banner and Yasiin Bey and others has been enlightening. I love to be in spaces where I can just listen — where I don’t have to speak. One of the blessings of being in this moment is that I’m asked to speak a lot. I’m never shying away from those moments because I have a lot to say, but I also love the times when I’m present and just listening to someone else talk about their work and their truth. I’m deeply inspired when I’m able to do that with people who are rising up from different communities as leaders — as servants. Like the black arts movements of the past — the Harlem Renaissance, etc. There is this level of camaraderie and support that exists in a number of different spaces because of the willingness to engage in philosophical and creative exchange. It creates a network of family. I’m definitely observant and learning from all of the great men and women that are out there, at the forefront, making it happen.
PPW: Your work captures black activists across the generational spectrum, often picturing issues and people that have long been sanitized or demonized by popular narratives. The work amplifies them openly challenging an unjust system. How do your audiences, particularly children, respond to those images?
BO: The cool thing about students — especially small kids — is that they are able to digest and view things in a very simple way. Wrong is wrong and right is right. And when you are willing to look at any of the world’s issues in that simple way, you can agree. I remember talking to a group of children about Albert Woodfox — one of the Angola Three — and how he was held in solitary confinement for forty-three years. There we are discussing his story and one of the little third grade girls raised her and interrupted. She said, “But that’s wrong!” They can clearly see right and wrong because they have this sort of innocence about them. But also, there is the opportunity for conversation around a subject as well. I remember doing a tour with a group of young white students and one of the students asked why I only painted black people. He didn’t ask maliciously, it was just natural curiosity. From that question came the opportunity to create conversation. That allowed us to discuss the concept of identity and how important it is to see yourself reflected. Within the communication that art allows, there is the opportunity to build with others and ask questions. Not to present any hard answers necessarily, but to discuss things in a way that encourages the students to think critically or see things in a different way. To put themselves in the shoes of someone else. The cool thing, for me, is also introducing them to people they may have never met before. People like Chairman Fred Hampton. I love stopping by his portrait and being able to tell his story. Discussing things that can hopefully inspire or challenge them. That’s the thing that inspires me most. Being able to bring young people through this space.
PPW: How did the rich history of deviant art that has informed hip-hop culture and always had a place in communities of color influence you?
BO: Graffiti, as an idea, has always been inspirational to me as a rebellious act that I connected to as a revolutionary act. Within the history of graffiti, there is that narrative. The initial emergence of graffiti was as a revolutionary act of art. It was this idea of people who felt overlooked and forgotten saying, “This is who I am, you’re going to notice me and acknowledge my existence.” That was the spark — that was the thing that was amazing to me. That these young people created this form of communication that is so connected to the past but so new at the same time. The challenge is that graffiti, as it exists today — especially in New Orleans — is a little bit different. Graffiti in the city has become this type of adventure for middle to upper-class white people. There is sort of this Christopher Columbus syndrome attached to it that is a little bit more divisive and troublesome when I think about New Orleans and places like it, where displacement is directly tied to abandoned places. There was this privilege to ignore what was happening at the expense of seizing a blank canvas. And I feel like white people mostly had that privilege. They were able to go into these spaces, see what they wanted to see as a blank canvas and ignore everything else that used to be there. So you could go into an abandoned housing project and feel completely safe to do some tags or put pieces on the wall that clearly had nothing to do with what was there before. That’s cool, but they took issue with someone like me, who went into those same spaces and began to paint trying to communicate with the people that still lived there or used to live there. They saw it as an assault on the culture of graffiti as they defined it. They did not see it as something that was for and held accountable to the communities that it existed in.
What I dealt with and what I am still dealing with now was a bunch of white guys that were not from the spaces that they painted in, but trying to take ownership of those spaces because they saw it as a blank canvas and they were adventurous enough to go and paint on the walls they encountered. Then when people from the communities said “Okay, this is how we want to envision this space,” there was a fight because they took that as them trying to steal the spaces they had claimed as their own. So that is a frustrating way that graffiti has presented itself in New Orleans. I was initially inspired by the artform to the point that I wanted to do it, but when I immersed myself in that space I realized that it was a community of artists that communicate solely with each other. I immediately realized that the people writing in the city were people I had no desire to communicate with. They were so oblivious to what was happening. These were the white boys that say “nigger.” These were people I did not feel comfortable creating community with. I decided to communicate with the people that actually lived in those spaces. So that’s when I started to use the same mediums — use the spray cans, use the spaces, use the same accent — to create pieces that engaged the community and bypassed them. They did not like me bypassing them. I got all of these derogatory responses from the younger people in the graffiti community in New Orleans. They called me a culture vulture and accused me of trying to blow up off of it. There was a lot of aggression and misunderstanding about what I was doing. I was trying to communicate with and bring these spaces back to the people it belonged to, which really has nothing to do with what they do. Nowhere in the conversations that I am having with these graf writers in the city, am I saying that graffiti isn’t important or doesn’t deserve to be there — I think it is necessary for people to constantly challenge society in public spaces and challenge the system from the bottom up. But while I’m deeply inspired and moved by it, I am also deeply critical of it. Especially in cities like New Orleans.
PPW: As a young black man living and working in the United States, what concerns you most — especially post-election 2016? Are you working from a place of uncertainty or fear? Are you creating from a place of hope? All of the above?
BO: I’m definitely not allowing what has been happening to handicap me or my hopes for my community. Dr. Cornel West said once — he said “To be an artist is to be on intimate terms with despair. To never allow despair to have the last word — but to be a prisoner of hope.” I think that embodies my sentiments in terms of where we are. You can’t ignore it or hide from it. You have to understand fully what is happening and the ramifications of this particular moment — of the climate and the politics that we are in in order to give voice to what is at stake. You have to be present. You have to be on the front lines, but within that you have to be a prisoner of hope. We deserve so much more, but I also understand that this will not destroy or reduce the brilliance that has always permeated its way through the worst of the struggle. I see this moment as a beautiful moment for that reason. But I do not want to simplify it and make it sound like it is all good. I also want to be honest about how bad it can be. I think being an artist is somehow existing on both parallels. Like Dr. West said, being on intimate terms with despair but also being a prisoner of hope. That’s where I am in this moment. I think we are going to see an increase in negativity, but in contrast we are going to see a lot of beautiful, bold resistance. There is so much potential in the moment that we are in, and I think the potential is greater than the confidence of the people that are invested in things that are detrimental to humanity. Those people are invested in this idea of victory and the idea that they have done what they were called to do. There is so much more potential in understanding the work that has to be done and in the people putting their energy into doing that work. Anytime I hear people speak critically about any form of resistance or aggression toward the status quo, I have to remind them that the only reason why we are where we are, is because of this ongoing grassroots commitment to the idea that the work is not done.
PPW: What is resistance for you at this point and what do you believe it will be in the future? How does literacy factor into that?
BO: Going back to being an activist, I think resistance is tied to this idea of value. I think a lot of the issues we have as a community are centered around the idea of how things are supposed to be. Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. said, “We think that this is the way things are supposed to be. Dogs chase cats. Cats chase mice. And police beat black people and kill them in the street.” I think a large part of activism is unlocking the idea that this is not how it is supposed to be. To love ourselves enough to realize that we are more valuable — that we deserve more. Extremely simplified, I think that that is what is required to continue to wake people up. Because that’s what I think a “woke” person is. A “woke” person is someone that understands their value, and understands that things are not supposed to be this way — that we deserve “x” or “y.” That’s at the core of any movement. There’s this unified understanding that the status quo does not represent all of us. I think that that is what resistance is and I hope that my artwork sparks the conversation around the value of individuals and communities and speaks directly to that. We saw literacy as a way to be more immediately active in our communities — outside of marching and picketing — to help improve education and disrupt the trend of black and brown people feeding the prison system in New Orleans. The United States is the prison capital of the world, Louisiana is the prison capital of the United States and New Orleans is the prison capital of the state of Louisiana. By default New Orleans is the prison capital of the world. We found literacy to be an important issue for us, especially since most of the incarceration that occurs in the state is a result of poor education. So we decided to find and give out books that reflected black people and their history. We also allow authors to sell their books in the gift shop at StudioBE. It is a continual response to a negative system that we found to be effective in helping to improve our community in a very immediate way.
PPW: What role does art play in modern empowerment? What would you like to see more or less of from artists — particularly those of color — in fraught political times?
BO: Dr. West talks about art and culture as the humanizing thing that basically saves society from going into violent revolution because it is always a reflection of the truth and the times. Paul Robeson said that artists are the gatekeepers of the truth. So, that is what I would hope for this upcoming generation of artists — to understand that their power is to reflect accurately what is happening in the world around them. That is the responsibility we all have. Dr. West said, “The condition of truth is about suffering to speak. You cannot speak truth unless somehow there is also embodied in that truth the pains and the bruises of everyday people.” I think that as long as artists are doing that with the work that they are creating, they are doing what we need them to do. That is the music that we need to hear and the poems we need to read and films we need to see. I understand the desire to want to escape through art, but I also think that art is always most effective when it is actively and accurately reflecting what we are seeing, what we are doing, and suggesting how we might move forward.
PPW: What do you envision for your work as you seek larger canvases and opportunities to exhibit at a greater level? What would you most like to convey to the world?
BO: My goal is to always talk back, so I’m not going to stop talking. I just want to continue to be conscious of who I am talking to — of how I can change and continue to increase the platform. How I can continue to challenge myself and just be better. I’m trying to keenly understand more and more, my responsibility. And understand how to pass it on — how to sustain as an artist. Sustaining movements and artistry is a very important conversation for us to have in the black community. The future for me is a continual upgrade of all things. The voice being more direct and intentional. The practice evolving. I’ve only been using spray paint for four years, so I want to continue to do that and get better at it. Jay Z said, “It’s all about progression, loiterers should be arrested.” I don’t want to be a loiterer, so I have to keep moving.