The Power of Black Art to Connect: New Orleans Studio BE

2 years ago my voyager intuition called me on a trip to New Orleans. The cab driver jolted over wrinkled & rugged roads whose sombre hair and South American accent clung in the damp air of the van as we approached my hotel in the Central Business District. His dark eyes scornfully glanced into the rear mirror when he hurled the question at me “Do you like blacks?”, but before I could give a response to aid my faltering confusion, he added “Because there are a lot of them here.” It was this splinter of racism that outlined the cracks between black and white population were running deeper than the ruptures that Hurricane Katrina had marked in the cityscape.  

New Orleans reverberates in my memories to this day with stomping Jazz bars, drenched by the pungent smell of old wood soaked in liquor & sweat, gaudy beads hanging from flamboyant shotgun homes that exhale from front porches eerie atmosphere coalescing in the streets with exuberant brass bands and second lines into the unforgettable sound and spirit of NOLA. I recall the uncanny deep sentiment, which the obscuring water of the Mississippi River evoked, submerging dark secrets that haunt the city in a tremor of daily thunderstorms like an eternal godly reprimand for a history of diabolical crimes and slavery.

The historic Eagle Saloon in New Orleans vowed by historians as the birthplace of Jazz

But most of all, it was the ubiquitous colourful & artistic soul of NOLA that made me fall in love with the eccentric beauty of the “Big Easy”. As often, it was the whisper of serendipity that told me to walk around the corner of my hotel onto the scalding artery of South Rampart Street, where the empty eyes of the Historic Eagle Saloon surrogated by images of iconic Jazz musicians gazed at me, maybe the only human soul the street had seen since the stomping beats of Jazz were birthed.

A mural by local artist “BMike” showing Buddy Bolden and his band on South Rampart Street in Downtown New Orleans

Just a stones throw away from here, I discovered the first eclectic mural by local New Orleans artist Brandan “BMike” Odum: An impressive larger than life artwork showing Buddy Bolden and his Band titled “One Time in New Orleans”, honouring the legacy of the father of jazz and New Orleans deeply entrenched culture of live music and sonorous rhythms. The marvelous artwork imprinted a lasting impression on me leading to “BMikes” Studio BE in the Bywater neighbourhood. A bright yellow corrugated iron facade illuminated the former warehouse with a larger than life painting of a young black girl radiating “Light” like the symbolic letters on her necklace, exerted a gravitational energy as strong as the force that aligns cosmic orbits: What was sublime on the outside, had to be seen from inside! As I directed a Lyft driver to the address in the Bywater neighbourhood, deserted streets seamed by gravel and abandoned industrial sites infused my single-minded, intuitive quest with insecurity. 

But every doubt clung to dust from the streets was obliterated, when I entered the door, nestled on the side of the building. The small vestibule unfurled the visitors eye to a dimmed, spacious hall, where large colourful murals of icons heroes, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Muhammad Ali emanated the sacred atmosphere of a sanctuary. Black history and present culture intertwined in the fluorescence of spotlights illuminating powerful art: Ephemeral moments of eternal legacy.  

Black history and present culture intertwined in the fluorescence of spotlights illuminating powerful art: Ephemeral moments of eternal legacy.  

The faces of young black children and adolescents enlightened at the sight of their reflections mirrored in iconic heros. Just like the coronation of every day people with impressive portraits and gleaming halos of equal size forged an uplifting aura so powerful that even the images didn’t cater to my appearance as a white woman, I felt a deep human connection to the sanctity of this space that is claimed, but not always found in the halls of god.

BMikes art installation expands, twists and rethinks the rigid frame of traditional museum archetypes. By linking history and presence, his artwork leaves a reprint of unprecedented relevance that wipes away any obsolete stiffness: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” is the uplifting, paramount message, which the eclectic exhibition radiates like a luminary as the transformative power of Brandan Odum`s art becomes an amplifier of the bountiful beauty of black culture!

Brandan Odums`s art becomes an amplifier of the bountiful beauty of black culture!

“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Studio BE

We are finding ourselves in an unprecedented momentum of collective awakening demanding the end of systemic racism that still infiltrates every part of our society. This summer, people of all races, ages and genders have joined the most diverse and emphatic outcry causing a tremor in the streets of the world. Nevertheless, the fact that the venom of racism has been able to persist until the 21st century is both the root and corollary of our disconnectedness that has hovered us into a quixotic state of mind, where we don’t know anymore what is going on on the other side of the street.

Racism is one of the lowest forms of human behaviour, which has spanned nationalities, religions & cultures, and yet is still a subject of debate, in which some voices argue this is “not the right time, place or way” for a historic movement that is overdue since the first civilisations 3500 BC. Exactly this callousness and neutrality towards injustice has allowed a vacuum for racism to persist like a malignant cancer without the threat of eradication. 

Black artists have the power to connect us as human beings.

Black artists have the power to connect us as human beings in a way that the loss of a black child causes the same outcry in a white mother as the loss of her own. In the words of my favourite author James Baldwin “Artists are here to disturb the peace”. They confront us with the inconvenient truth of a white washed history and skewed storyline by exposing the blind spots of our well guarded “white reality” that conceals the truth, like the Mississippi River can obstruct, but not erase the crimes of history.

I might be as far away from omniscience as arctic and antarctic are distant from each other. However, my experience as a white person in predominantly “black spaces” and realms of art & culture has been one of the most pivotal epiphanies for me to broaden my horizon and to get a rare perspective shift to the daily reality of a minority that is not represented by a commemorated ideal. Black artists can teach us white people that we (sometimes literally) don’t always have to play the centre stage. 

Art can not just be a pivotal mediator to open our eyes to the struggle, but also the beauty of people of color. I have been able to witness the most regal celebration of “blackness” at Afropunk in Brooklyn, where crystals, long braids and every shade of brown skin glinted in the warm summer light like the coronation of kings and queens. 

The callousness of some white people, who decide to remain silent in repeating situations of brutal injustice might be the biggest accomplice of racism.

Two years after my visit to New Orleans, when the news of Ahmaud Arbery`s killing spread like a wildfire, my body and soul burned with anger, exasperation and despair. I glanced at the baseball cap I bought from Studio BE and ran with Ahmaud wearing the black power fist holding a scarlet rose with more pride and vigor than ever, molding my pain into power.

Despite unprecedented numbers of protesters have been summoning in the streets, “Black Lives Matter” hashtags are trending and company statements are surging with the claim for diversity, as I am writing these words, black people are still being killed and wrested of their basic human rights: From Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks to most recent 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks, who was restrained and killed by staff members of a facility for throwing a sandwich in the cafeteria. The most dreadful part about the diabolical cycle of racism is that by the end of next week there might already be another son, daughter, father or mother being murdered. With every outcry for justice, I must say that I have been bewildered too. I have been bewildered about the callousness of some white people (including some of my own friends), who decide to remain silent in the face of repeating situations of brutal injustice and whose duplicity might be the biggest accomplice of racism. 

Nobody`s free until everybody`s free.

Fannie Lou Hamer

The future of humanity will depend upon the extent to which coming generations will be able to relate to each other through empathy. Art can be a silver lining in this process by tearing down walls between black & white along the obsolescent concept of the colour line that is trapping black people in injustice and white people in ignorance and hypocrisy. At the end of the day, the words of Fannie Lou Hamer painted on a large royal blue mural at Studio BE in New Orleans will be an eternal truth: “Nobody`s free until everybody`s free”.