Baptized When the Levees Broke: New Orleans

Jesse Shuman visits Ephemeral.Eternal at New Orleans’ Studio Be

Each moment might have an expiration date. The ancient Greeks defined time with two terms: chronos and kairos. The former is the passage of time measured by quantity, and the latter is forever – the opportune moments measured in quality. At Studio Be, street artist Brandan “BMike” Odums dances with kairos in the face of chronos – the ephemeral that inspires the eternal.

Located in an inconspicuous 3,000 square foot warehouse in the New Orleans’ Bywater arts district, Studio Be’s rusty walls have metamorphosed into massive canvases. While the spray can becomes the expressive tool of the exhibition, itself a beacon of the ephemeral, it manifests unique and inclusive statements on religion, society, race, love, and above all time, in expressive and evocative ways.

Through the lens of time, statements on race are masterly elucidated. One of BMike’s recurring motifs is that of Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy is eternal despite his life being ephemeral. BMike combines contemporary memes and images to create meaningful and poignant statements on race relations. Take, for example, a piece that lay in the corner of a massive stretch of one of the warehouse’s many rooms. In this piece, a payphone, painted white, lies among a litany of equally white papers. These papers are the unclassified documents of the FBI, in which the agency sought to discredit MLK as a communist and adulterer; if one listens, one can hear the recordings of wiretaps placed on the civil rights leader. In juxtaposition, Drake looms over, with the announcement: I know when that Hotline Bling.

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BMike also inserts himself into the oeuvre of racially conscious postmodernism and civil rights activism. A series of portraits – men and boys gunned down by police in recent years or decades before (a boy in a hoodie, a man with a pencil-thin mustache) – shown in different colored backgrounds are held together by a sign each holds: I AM A MAN. This is a contestation of Ellison’s “I am an invisible man,” instead asserting their physicality, which too, is existentially ephemeral amidst their eternal legacy. One recalls Glenn Lignon’s Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988), an artistic statement on how, “It’s not about me. It’s about we.”

This restructuring of modern motifs is also used critically. BMike uses the found imagery of civil rights buttons and alters them into scathing remarks about modern blackness and contemporary America. United We Shall Overcome becomes United We May Overcome, By Any Means Necessary becomes Buy Any Jeans Necessary, Freedom Ride Core becomes Pimp My Freedom Ride. Odums does not absolve his own community; instead, he challenges them by acknowledging that issues of race of two-fold: there is an external and internal element. While oppression is reinforced institutionally, Odums questions the tenacity of the modern black community in ameliorating their position in an effective fashion. One cannot help but feel that Odums is somewhat disappointed that the renewed interest in civil rights falls flat in the face of its progenitor; instead, modern blackness is distracted with the mechanisms designed to keep it subjugated.

Particularly striking are the interactive elements in the exhibition. Described as meditations on what happens when kairos overwhelms us, when time distorts perceptions of love and memory, these experiments are surprisingly effective in garnering visceral responses. In giant cutouts of the letters B and E, viewers can enter into curtained rooms, where they are met with engaging prompts. The first extends the invitation to write what inhibits the viewer from receiving love. The second, describing the purifying effects of fire, forces the viewer to look at his/her reflection, and write a letter to onself It is then thrown forward, extinguished. At the end of each day, the papers are burned and the ash is used to construct a mirror.

One might understand the artist’s wrestling with the ephemeral through his medium. The spray can BMike makes his art for the purposes of survival, much like weavers who crafted baskets: it is not because he is trying to make something pleasing, it is because it is seemingly necessary. At Ephemeral.Eternal, art is a tool. Its function is to inspire and educate.

Jesse Shuman is a Baltimore-based writer originally from Long Island, New York.

 

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