By Ashley Rouen
On November 23rd 2006, over 100 families were evicted from an Algiers apartment complex, just a few days before Thanksgiving. In the years immediately following, the building housed both crime and squatters. Lately though, it has been the site for a massive graffiti art installation, Exhibit BE, initiated by local street artist Brandan Odums. Exhibit BE was only open to the public last Saturday (11.15) from 11a.m.-4p.m. The exterior now covered by colorful graffiti art can still be seen from the street located at the intersection of Sandra Dr. and Murl St. on the West Bank.
Odums headed Project BE, a similar concept that transformed the blighted Florida Housing Development into a living, breathing tribute to black civil rights activists. NoDefs Skylar Fein broke the story and soon after HANO restricted public access to the abandoned building.
Unlike Project BE, Exhibit BE caught the eye of the new developers and owners of the property at the RDLN Foundation, which has plans to turn the dilapidated apartments into a sporting complex and hotel. Rather than see the graffiti art splattering the walls as vandalism, developers saw an opportunity to relate and give back to the community. They teamed up with Odums and Prospect 3 to bring the largest temporary art gallery of the American South to the city of New Orleans.
The public was invited to roam the forsaken grounds on Saturday. It was a rare opportunity to peer into the world of blighted life and pay homage to those who once lived there. Broken glass and debris from years of neglect littered the ground and interior of the ground floor units, which were open for viewing. Like walking through a museum gallery, each room exposed the inner world of the inhabitants.
In the first room, a timeline entitled “Displaced: New Orleans” detailed the history of public, low-income housing in the city. Outlined in pink chalk, the artist noted: “2006: Owners of the Woodlands Apartment (De Gaulle Manor) Complex in Algiers makes national news with a planned Thanksgiving Eviction of over 100 families.”
The timeline haunted as it unveiled the long history of public housing in New Orleans as chilling music played from a laptop situated in the corner. The artist had displayed garments, photographs, a child’s bed and other found memorabilia inside the small room packed with Exhibit BE viewers.
A little girl holding a red rose given to her by the artist said, “All this stuff belonged to the people who lived here,” and then she asked, “Where did they go?”
In another room, artist Candy Chang, who did “Wall Before I Die” now on display at the Ogden, constructed a series of black and white collage images to go with a narrative written by James A. Reeves in an exhibit entitled “Love Destroys Time”. It told a sad story about lost love inspired by a blind woman who once lived there.
A dome-like atrium sitting at the center of the site was covered with images of civil rights activists, musicians, writers, etc. accompanied by inspirational quotes. As visitors walked up the stairwell, they passed a large vertical mural of Muhammad Ali with the words “We stand on the shoulders of giants” painted next to it.
Inside, a panel of artists and developers, including Brandan Odums discussed Exhibit BE. “Developers come in and think ‘I know what this community needs,’” said Odums. “They don’t have a relationship with the community.”
Odums mentioned a disconnect between art and development. Luckily, developer Sean Cummings saw the power of the graffiti art as it related to the community and this particular structure’s history.
“I love creativity, and I like rebels, entrepreneurs, muses,” said Cummings. “Change comes from the fringe. It doesn’t come from the center.”
The developer noted a similarity between street artists and developers, both with the capacity to be rebels that inspire change in the community. He called street art, in particular the civil rights portraits painted on the walls, “the prism” through which we can see social change.
Exhibit BE, though on view for a short time, was a testament to the power of street art to effect positive change in a community ridden with blight. It became a living memorial to those who once resided there, to those who know abandonment, to those still seeking to find home. The entire project encapsulated one of the quotes on written on the walls from Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler: “The child in each of us knows paradise. Paradise is home. Home as it was or home as it should have been.”