More than 2,000 people gathered in an abandoned Algiers housing complex Saturday afternoon, craning their necks upward to gaze at murals that extended the entire height of the five-story building in front of them. Video cameras rolled and photographs were snapped, as a nearby sign drove home a message about the often fleeting nature of street art.
“This is temporary. Take a picture. It will last longer,” the sign said.
Very temporary, as it turned out.
Called “Exhibit Be,” the large-scale art project aimed to transform blight into beauty — even if just for one day.
Brandan Odums, a well-known local street artist and mastermind behind last year’s much-discussed exhibit “Project Be,” had once again breathed life into a place that had been left to deteriorate and crumble.
Described as “the largest single-site street art exhibit in the American South,” Saturday’s tour de force was a continuation of that 2013 project, which paid tribute to civil rights heroes in the form of spray-painted portraits in the Hurricane Katrina-damaged Florida housing development.
Like “Project Be,” Saturday’s exhibit transformed an abandoned space into a gallery of sorts. Unlike “Project Be,” however, “Exhibit Be” was legally open to the public, even if just for a short time.
Held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in the old DeGaulle Manor apartments development at 2910 Sandra Drive, Saturday’s exhibit was part of the Prospect.3 art festival, a citywide event running from Oct. 25 through Jan. 25. While other Prospect.3 projects will last the length of the festival, Odums’ exhibit was always bound to be temporary. That’s because the former compound, now falling down, is soon to be developed into a sports complex and hotel by the Rural Development Leadership Network.
Seeing an opportunity to make a statement, Odums and other artists created artwork on the walls of the complex’s three buildings anyway, with the blessing of one of the property’s developers, Bill Thomasan. According to Odums, Thomasan contacted him after finding some murals Odums had already painted on the site, and he agreed to give legitimacy to the exhibit by opening the area to the public.
“To me, it’s crazy to think that only three weeks ago I couldn’t convince people to come back here,” said Odums, who also produces videos and often goes by the name Bmike. He added Saturday that he was overwhelmed by the exhibit’s success and moved by the feedback he had gotten from his peers. On Sunday, the project’s Twitter feed reported that at least 2,500 people had crammed into the space within the five-hour window.
“The message I want to send is I’m hoping artists who paint in spaces like these can now see the impact of their work,” Odums said. “Hopefully, they can better think about people in the communities where they create.”
Odums has long advocated for responsible street art, even when that work is done illegally. Part of the mission of “Project Be” was to dismiss the notion that graffiti are associated with gang activity or violence, instead taking the opportunity to teach young people about civil rights history. Odums created a name for himself last year by painting figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X in an area that he said others had treated with indifference or neglect.
In many ways, “Exhibit Be” duplicated that mission, featuring larger-than-life murals of civil rights heroes Amiri Baraka, Fannie Lou Hamer and Nelson Mandela.
Saturday’s project included much more, however, as DJs spun records, bartenders served cocktails and participants engaged in a panel discussion. The exhibit also paid tribute to famous black performers, including Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and Muhammad Ali, as well as New Orleanians who have recently fallen victim to violence, such as teenager George Carter, who was slain in October on Piety Street.
On Saturday, Odums added that his crew of at least 13 artists had intentionally chosen thought-provoking subjects, in hopes of educating the public about what graffiti can symbolize.
“I hope people can see its potential, and that it’s not just vandalism but also beauty and transformation,” Odums said. “I’m hoping this allows the community to see blighted spaces differently, to realize that all blight is connected to a story. And to respect that story.”
Before it opened to the public, the exhibit had become a giant collaboration between Odums and the other artists. Many chose to stick with a larger-than-life theme, creating giant pieces extending several floors high, like a skull designed by local set director and artist Jeremy Paten or a woman painted by Australian artist Rone. Some pieces extended beyond graffiti, including a multidisciplinary collage in a first-floor room by local artist Candy Chang and writer James A. Reeves. Called “Love Destroys Time,” the collage featured a written story about an elderly New Orleans woman that was pasted onto a series of black and white prints.
“This takes visionaries like Bmike, who breathes new life into spaces,” 29-year-old producer Caegan Moore said as she stood amid the artwork Saturday afternoon. “It was old and abandoned, and now it’s filled with light and laughter and color. It makes you think about what art is, and where you can put a canvas.”
Her friend, 30-year-old Troave Profice, agreed.
“You don’t even realize it’s an abandoned building complex,” said Profice, who works for the Louisiana Department of Education. “It transforms how you think about art in the city. I think it’s absolutely amazing.”
Ben Johnson, a 25-year-old filmmaker, said he hoped his community of graffiti and visual artist friends would gain some respect after putting together such a well-received exhibit.
“You don’t see stuff like that very often,” Johnson said. “It’s thought-provoking art that’s free, right in front of you.”