ExhibitBE: Arts and Social Justice

IMG_6563Although I have been back from New Orleans for nearly two weeks now, I can’t stop thinking about ExhibitBE, the building in the Algiers neighborhood scheduled to be torn down but in the meantime covered with paintings. I had three encounters with the show: one during my exploratory trip with Kaitlin, one with the students where we entered and explored on our own, and one with Brandon Odums, the artist who generated the project. Each made an impact on me in a different way.

IMG_6942Kaitlin and I had heard about the exhibit, and even though it had closed, we chose to drive out to see it. The complex was locked up and we stayed outside the chain link fence, drinking in what we could, feeling inspired and moved, taking pictures and hoping to return. We checked with our connection at Jericho Road, who confirmed it was closed, and they suggested the idea of contacting the artist to see if he might work with our group when we returned.

IMG_6950The second time, an impromptu visit to the exhibit with the group, we pushed through the barriers and explored the venue in more depth. Examining the murals, seeing what was inside the rooms, taking inspiration from the quotes: students came away elated, honored, invigorated, inspired. As it turned out, the folks at Jericho Road were able to get ahold of Brandon Odums, the artist who was the impetus behind the show and he agreed to give us a special guided tour. It was one of the highlights of our entire week.

He talked about what the place was like when it was first built: a beautiful apartment complex for middle and upper middle class mostly black residents of the area, with a pool and fine furnishings. IMG_6943Later, it came into disrepair, was managed by “slumlords” and became a haven for drug deals and other forms of crime. After Hurricane Katrina, it was all but abandoned. During this period,Brandon used to come in and paint there; it was quiet, he had space, and no one bothered him. New owners plan to tear it down and build something new there, but when they met Brandon, they admired his work and together they came up with the idea of inviting other artists, mostly graffiti artists with a social justice mission, to fill the whole place with images and words. The painting went on for a couple of months, and in the final weekend, they opened it to the public for one day and over 2500 people came to see it.

HIMG_6948earing Brandon talk about the impact the project had on him, on other artists, and on those who came out to view it, I couldn’t help thinking about the power of art, of visual images and words to inspire, to make us think and feel, even to change lives. He says art for art’s sake is not for him; he needs it to have a higher purpose, to make a difference. Our New York city students were reminded of a similar project in Queens where artists were able to paint murals on a building before it sold. The new owner painted it yellow and someone spray-painted the words “Art Murderer” over it.

The line between street art and “legitimate” art — what is not allowed and yet needs to be said by the disenfranchised — is a fine one. I admire the artists who created the work, the owners who supported the project, and all those who allowed themselves to be moved by it. I know the students will not easily forget our experience there, and neither will I. May we all be inspired to work together toward a just, humane, sustainable and beautiful world.


If you have a few minutes, watch this youtube video of Brandon talking about ExhibitBE:

A few more of my favorite photos: