New Orleans

Street Art for Change in New Orleans

Words: Andreas Tzortzis
Photography/Video: Danny Lee

One man’s mission to use street art to change the way people think about their city blossomed into the largest open-air gallery in the South—and the first ever in a housing project.

By the time Brandan Odums saw the man coming through the Algiers housing project in New Orleans looking all official, it was already too late. He’d been painting large pieces of street art inside the gutted insides of the apartment building abandoned since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and there were few exits.

“Are you that BE guy?” the man asked. In 2013, Odums painted life-size portraits of civil rights leaders inside another abandoned complex, the Florida Housing Projects. He called it Project BE, and it attracted hundreds of curious onlookers through the broken chain-link fences and won designation as the city’s best open-air gallery. Then the developers decided to raze the place. Odums found his way to Algiers and started doing the same when Bill Thomason, a member of the board that owned the property, stumbled across him.

“I told him, ‘Yeah’,” Odums recalled. “And he said ‘Oh we’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” 
The two worked out a deal through which Odums would invite 30 artists from around the country to create works of art on the five-story property. Over the two months it was open from Nov. 15, Odums estimates that more than 16,000 locals and student groups came through. Then came Monday’s closing party, which featured performances by hip-hop group Dead Prez, soul songstress Erykah Badu and local hero Trombone Shorty. Local reports put the number of people at 10,000. “The fire marshall came in and said you either have to shut it down or close the gates,” says Odums. “So we shut the gates and people resorted to hopping over the fence.”

Odums briefed The Red Bulletin on the project’s success, and what he hopes its legacy will be.

Did the turnout exceed your expectations?
It was already beautiful to have the idea of this space being legal and open to the public. This would’ve been cool if we could stay open more than one day, but for two months? It surpassed expectations with thousands of people on the weekend, and then we started school tours during the week, where the kids got tours by the artists and were able to work on projects with them. Then it became this whole thing of art connecting community. That art has a function.

What was the brief you gave the artists?
We told them this isn’t a blank canvas, we wanted them to think about those who lived here and why were they no longer here. There’s a quote I love: “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” Art for art’s sake is cool. But this is more than just that. This is art that’s really trying to address something and confront people. When we had 10,000 people in this space we wanted them to be confronted with where they stood.

“We didn’t have the patience to knock on politicians’ doors, but we had paint, time and creativity.”

Why did you put a time limit on its existence?
We knew that the cost of keeping it open would be that it would be co-opted in a way. That [the developers] would be able to use what we did to create an attraction for their property. The artists did this work to show how blight is connected to a rich story of community and struggle. To use that same art in the construction of a private sports resort [the housing project’s planned next incarnation] seems dishonest. There was no way to keep doing this and keep the integrity of this place.

Did the exhibit fulfill your original idea?
I think what happened here definitely shows what can occur when people take control of their own community. We didn’t have the patience to knock on politicians’ doors, but we had paint, time and creativity—and that’s something that everyone has. With those small means we were able to transform this space. That is something that could be carried throughout, and can be done elsewhere. That is something we definitely believe.

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01 2015

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