Brandan Odums is tall and broad-shouldered. His long dreadlocks give his T-shirt-and-jeans look an edge, but he is soft-spoken and passionate. He is a teacher, a painter, a filmmaker and, some might say, an activist. Many words describe the 28-year-old artist; just don’t call him an artist. It’s not that Odums doesn’t like the distinction; it’s just that he doesn’t see himself that way.
“I don’t feel comfortable calling myself anything. I just don’t like boxing it,” says Odums of his diverse resume. “Whatever people call me, I respond to it. I guess what I do echoes what artists do, what filmmakers do, what teachers do. Maybe in some years, I’ll realize that’s ignorant.”
Born in California into a military family, Odums moved back to his parents’ native New Orleans during eighth grade and soon found himself wondering what was so bad about the dangerous city from which his mother had tried to shelter Odums and his brothers. Without knowing it, her well-intended protection only fueled Odums’ early curiosity about Bourbon Street and certain New Orleans neighborhoods.
“As a developing artist, I explored those places and things I was told not to. I developed my own language and my own style,” says Odums. But what Odums also found was that it’s easy to get caught up in the slow-paced attitude of New Orleans. That’s also what keeps him motivated. “The Big Easy can be like quicksand,” he says. “You can sit there and five years can go by and not even notice. That’s the curse of it. The gift is that New Orleans is such a well of stimulation. I try to focus on that side of it. The kind of work that I do is a conversation with those struggles. I don’t think it could have developed in any other city, because my choice of creating is responding to those problems.”
Another part of that conversation for Odums is trying to find the balance between doing what he likes to do and making people uncomfortable. Perhaps Odums’ most notable work, “Project Be,” is the best example of that inner struggle. The growing acceptance of street art in other major cities is still, according to Odums, largely associated with vandalism in New Orleans. Earlier this year, Odums trespassed onto the abandoned ruins of the Florida public housing development and painted a series of murals and quotes depicting influential civil rights activists, including Huey P. Newton, Louisiana native and co-founder of the Black Panthers, gay writer James Baldwin, and jazz singer Nina Simone.
“I was conscious of the fact that I could get in trouble; that at any point someone could see this the wrong way. But one of the biggest blessings is that people got it. Nobody took it as a threat,” says Odums. “I realized a long time ago that being an artist is more than just you. There’s how people respond to it. As an artist, I have a responsibility to influence people. If I see there’s a problem with a property that’s been sitting there for eight years, then I’m going to solve it within my own brain. I’m going to make this valuable to me, and it in return make it valuable to someone else; that’s a good thing.”
Odums actually didn’t expect anyone to see the murals. He was just looking for something to do, a space where he could paint what he wanted. He also didn’t anticipate the attention the paintings are receiving. Several arts programs, including Prospect New Orleans and the Arts Council of New Orleans, are behind Odums, urging the Housing Authority of New Orleans to open the murals for public viewing as a spotlight on plight and affordable housing. The Florida public housing development has been closed and in decay since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late 2005.
Although “Project Be” was not intended as a political statement, Odums is not afraid to use his talents to address social issues. As founder of 2Cent Entertainment, described by Odums as a multi-platform content creator, Odums’ mission is to bridge the gap between entertainment and education. “It is an art collective of a social enterprise,” he says of the organization. “Students spend more time in front of the computer than they do in front of a teacher. We try to create content that promotes education.” 2Cent Entertainment creates video parodies and also trains students to use a camera to film their own pieces. “We find talented young artists to use our platform to benefit them,” Odums explains.
Even though Odums has dedicated time and effort to finding and educating young artists, the definition of art eludes him. The art world, to Odums, is sometimes claustrophobically bound by the opinions of artists, art experts, and art enthusiasts. Perhaps that is why, in spite of himself, Odums can’t commit to the label of “artist”. He simply does what he feels is right, and is inspired by what he sees and hears every day—music, gun violence, history, what his grandmother cooks for dinner—without worrying about who will see it or if it would sell. Brandan Odums is just Brandan Odums—observer, creator, human being.
“I still struggle with the definition of art. Around the same time of ‘Project Be,’ I would go out and see people experiencing it, and in that context of how art was presented, then I went to the Gordon Parks exhibit [at the New Orleans Museum of Art], and the first thing I realize is that it felt like a place I wasn’t invited to. It felt empty, quiet, stale. This is not the place I want my art to be,” says Odums, though he displayed art at NOMA three separate times as a high school student. “It didn’t feel like it was a place that was living. I was taught and trained to believe that this is where the greatest of the greats go, but it felt like a cemetery.”
Photography by: Ollie Alexander