Throughout the premiere season of her hit OWN drama series Queen Sugar, director and executive producer Ava DuVernay has been hailed for shining a spotlight on social issues from the impact of mass incarceration to rape culture. In episode seven, DuVernay turns her lens to New Orleans visual artist Brandan “BMike” Odums, and his first solo show at #StudioBe, a 35,000 sq. foot space.
In the episode, directed by Neema Barnette, Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) takes her nephew Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) and her new activist girlfriend Chantal (Reagan Gomez) to #StudioBe. While Nova interviews Odums for a story, Chantal takes the opportunity to use Odums’ paintings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant to teach Micah about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The question is, who are you?” Chantal asks Micah as they stand in front of the spray-painted images of four slain Black men who hold signs that read “I Am a Man,” echoing the signs held by protestors in the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. “And who do you want to be?”
EBONY.com caught up with Odums to talk art as a tool for education and social change and why Ava DuVernay is just as dope in real life as the world thinks she is.
EBONY: Your artwork featured in episode 7 of Queen Sugar is breathtaking. How did your work come to be featured on the show?
BRANDAN “BMIKE” ODUMS: I met Ava DuVernay at Essence Festival a couple of years ago and I told her that I was [there] representing my work and she asked to see it. So I showed her some images on my phone and when she seen it, she was like, “Wait, hold up. You did that? We’ve got to talk.” And so we exchanged numbers and attempted to link up a few times after that, but for scheduling reasons, we were never able to link up so she could see the work. And then randomly, I got an email from her assistant saying she was interested in stopping by my new space, [#StudioBe] in New Orleans. So she came through and I gave her a tour of the space and at some time during the tour she said, “I’m working on this new show and I’m going to write this into the show. Have you’ve ever acted before?” And I was like, “No, but I think I can,” and she said, “All right, cool. I’m writing you into the script.” A couple weeks later, I got a phone call from the line producer and I was like, “Wow, it’s actually happening.”
The more I tell that story, People are like, “Yep, that’s Ava. That’s exactly how she is.” She really follows through. Big ups to Ava.
— AvaDuVernay Fans (@avaduvernayfans) October 13, 2016
EBONY: The scene in the episode that features your artwork is really powerful. Your work is being used to educate a high schooler on the Black Lives Matter movement. Was that your vision for this exhibit?
BO: That’s exactly why Ava wrote this scene that way. Every time we do school tours [at #StudioBe], this is what we do. Young people are really drawn to spray paint art, or graffiti, or street art. My goal has always been to use these images to positively influence [school kids] and confront them with these images, to show them that there’s nothing new. Our history teaches us that we’ve been through worse and we’ve found ways to surmount these obstacles in beautiful ways. One aspect of the show is historical in that way and the other half is about reimagining the present and the future from the lens of the past.
Most of what we deal with in the world has us thinking that this is how it’s supposed to be. That the issues we deal with every day are normal. We’re numb to it. I think on the larger scale, the Black Lives Matter movement is about young people saying, “Nah. This is not how it’s supposed to be.” [My art] is about unlocking that idea in other young people, as well. Letting them see you’re worth more than what you’re dealing with every day. You’re worth more than what you’re subject to. Through that understanding, they begin to demand more and fight for more and say they deserve better. And say things like “Black Lives Matter.” Some of that messaging is intentional, some of the work has to be interpreted. We want people to see what they see and have a conversation about it.
EBONY: What was the inspiration behind this exhibit?
I’ve been very blessed to be engaged in these extremely organic outdoor projects that have been taking place in New Orleans, that led to my current exhibit. One is Project Be. I broke into a housing project, abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, and I went in there and started painting murals to send a message to those people who have to walk by and deal with that space every day, to kind of give them encouragement. So I had no idea that anyone [else] would ever see the work outside of the physical space that it stood, but Instagram had just popped off in New Orleans, so the images began to be shared around and people from all over began to venture out to try and find this work. That got shut down because it was illegal and it was a problem for people to get back into the space to see the work.
That led to another project called Exhibit Be, which was a more legal version of the first one, where this time it was a privately own apartment complex that was abandoned since Katrina, and this time I got permission to the owner to transform the space and create an art exhibits. I reached out to over 35 artists, we transformed a 150-unit complex into this art exhibit. Over 10,000+ people came to the space and it shook up New Orleans to show people the power of the art, how art can heal, can inspire and empower others. Once that got shut down in January 2014, I got introduced to this new space, I pitched my first solo show, it’s inside 35,000 sq. ft. studio and I worked as big as I could do outdoors and took what I learned from that and tried to fully intentionalize how this space could be used to teach, educate and inspire.
At first, I was just painting people I looked up to in history. People like, Chairman Fred Hampton and Nikki Giovvani and then when the kids came through, they had no idea who these people were. It was about introducing these amazing people who helped me unlock my potential to these kids. The other part is to define and showcase the value of the individual.
That’s the legacy I come from. My elders taught me, art for art’s sake is not true. Artists will always, as Paul Robeson said, be the gatekeepers of truth. As Nina Simone says, art is supposed to reflect the times. I come from that tradition. The people who taught me, they instilled that in me to be like, “Yo, if you’re gonna have this talent, you have to be conscious about how you use it and how it impacts other people.” And that’s the type of work that I do.