Denver artist paints a mural in tribute to Ma’Khia Bryant

Thyris Odua would love to find the large-scale piece a permanent home in Columbus after Colorado’s Black Love Mural Festival ends

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
A Ma'Khia Bryant mural currently on display in Denver, Colorado

In the days after Columbus police shot and killed teenager Ma’Khia Bryant in April, video footage of the shooting circulated on social media, eventually making its way into the Instagram feed of Denver artist Thyris Odua.

“I thought it was really sad. It was just so violent,” Odua said from his Denver home. “It really messes with me to think that, because we’re in this big recording age, that video is the last visual people will have of this person in the world.”

As a means of countering this image, Odua started to seek out the videos that Bryant recorded and posted of herself doing her makeup and fixing her hair — clips that exuded youth and joy. “When I saw the TikToks of her being all bubbly, and the personality and the dancing and the hair, it just reminded me of so many people I know,” he said.

When Odua was invited to contribute a mural to the Black Love Mural Festival, which opened on May 27 and runs through Aug. 2 at Denver’s Civic Center Park, he began to explore these more buoyant aspects of Bryant’s personality, collecting images of her smiling and laughing, determined to create a final image of the teen that could stand in direct contrast to the horrific circumstances of her death.

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After gathering images, Odua, a tattoo artist who received his introduction to murals coming up doing graffiti, roughed out a handful of thumbnail sketches. For a time, he toyed with the idea of painting Bryant in the midst of styling her hair (“I thought Black women would love seeing her putting product in her hair,” he said), eventually settling on a much-circulated close-up of the teenager smiling and flashing a peace sign due in part to the clarity of the source image, which provided the level of detail needed to blow the painting up to cover the 16-by-8-foot wall.

Early in the design process, Odua experimented with a couple of different backgrounds, initially thinking he might surround Bryant with butterflies, leafy green plants and tropical flowers before stripping things back, setting the teenager atop a dark backdrop and haloing her with golden, glowing butterflies. Prior to starting the piece, Odua said he didn’t do any deep dives into Bryant’s life. “And I didn’t feel like I needed to,” he said. “I just wanted to paint her in a beautiful, young light.”

At the same time, Odua said he had an awareness of Bryant’s upbringing in the foster care system, an experience in which he shared. “I grew up in group homes myself, and when you’re in that weird conflict situation I know that angst, where shit could just go wrong now,” said Odua, who completed the mural in four days. “And I’m not anti-cop. Anyone who thinks they know what they would have done in that situation is in denial. … But I will say I think there’s a disconnect between cops and the community, and it’s hard for me to believe that would have happened if it was a 16-year-old white girl.”

More:How bots and dead accounts helped drive one Ma’Khia Bryant narrative

These police-community tensions recently revealed themselves when Priscilla Rahn, vice chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, posed for a photograph with police officers in front of Odua’s Bryant mural, igniting a local controversy. “I literally found out about it four days ago, and it made me way more emotional than I thought it would,” said Odua, adding that the photograph reminded him of the time officers posed near a memorial to Elijah McClain, who died in Colorado police custody in 2019. "It's unfortunate, but I got more responses to that [photo] than I did when I first posted the mural."

Ultimately, Odua said he would like the painting to find a home in Columbus after it’s taken down in early August, whether with Bryant’s family or with a local arts organization that can properly display the piece, and the artist has already started researching ways he can preserve the paint as the plywood boards are removed. 

“If her family or someone in [Columbus] reaches out, and they want to put it somewhere in your city, I would love to see that happen,” Odua said. “I would love to make it happen.”