Okayplayer spoke with Alim Smith about Afro-surrealism, turning memes into art, his work for Atlanta, and more.
In 2022, memes have become a prominent way of engaging with others, sometimes seeming like a separate system of communication in their own right. From interacting with other users on social media to flooding the group chat threads, it’s almost hard to imagine a time on the internet without them. The best memes — those that soar to heights of almost unfathomable virality — have the ability to capture moments in time, and articulate ideas or indescribable phenomena in a way that feels shockingly relatable. Noticing the increased rate with which people were sharing memes, Delaware-based interdisciplinary artist Alim Smith began transforming some of the internet’s most viral memes — specifically those popularized by Black Twitter — into exuberant surrealist paintings.
Smith was determined for his paintings to reach a larger audience. What began as a project to honor his commitment of completing an annual Black History Month series quickly gained major attention. Eventually, the artist was commissioned to produce 25 oil paintings for Instagram’s event, “In Living Color: A celebration of Black joy through love and laughter,” highlighting the most viral Black memes.
Working in a style called Afro-surrealism — a term coined by esteemed poet and writer Amiri Baraka in 1974 — Smith’s painterly renditions of memes crystallize seemingly fleeting digital moments into a physical object. The artist’s signature style recently landed him a role creating the artwork for the poster of the latest season of FX’s Atlanta, with Smith creating a vibrantly-hued work depicting the show’s main characters — Earn, Vanessa, Darius, and Alfred (aka Paper Boi) — complete with his distinctive flair. The gridlike portrait can be seen on billboards and ads across the country; show creator Donald Glover even gave a shout out to Smith and his promo art for the show during an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Over the years, Smith has garnered inspiration from a wide range of sources, including family like his artist aunt Earlene Smith (who he wrote about in a recent Instagram post) and his Uncle Lem, whose wooden sculptures “are the reason I wanted to be an artist,” as he wrote in his first published post on his Instagram account dedicated to his late uncle. Smith also looks to graphic artist M.C. Escher, as well as the whimsical worlds and rhymes of Dr. Seuss, for his approach to creating.
Okayplayer spoke with Smith about his thoughts on Afro-surrealism, turning memes into art, his work for Atlanta, and more.
In the past, you’ve described Afro-surrealism as “anything that’s Black and weird.” Can you expand a little bit on that description of what Afro-surrealism is to you?
I love questions about Afro-surrealism, because I’m starting to understand that I don’t know if I’ll ever really know what it is all the way. I remember six or seven years ago, I was at an art show and my friend Terrance told me about the word Afro-surrealism, but it applied mostly to literature and stories and books.
And I thought, “Nobody’s using that in art. Let’s go with that.” It’s just weirdness. It’s being free to be yourself. And it’s just going to keep evolving. I don’t even know where it’s going, but I love that.
I feel as though there is sometimes a conflation between Afro-futurism and Afro-Surrealism, what are your thoughts on that?
I go with the term Afro-surrealism rather than Afro-futurism, because I want to be present with my blackness. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
You’ve been creating and sharing work on social media in this style for years now. I am curious what drew you to the style of surrealism to begin with?
There’s levels to it. It started with Dr. Seuss and those crazy stories like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and [One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish].
Secondly, when I was in middle school, I found this book by an artist called M.C. Escher. He made some super dope art. It was just beautiful. Dr. Seuss and M.C. Escher definitely inspired my approach.
As far as the portraits, when I was in middle school we had to draw everything super realistically. It had to be perfect and close to reality. I don’t know if there was something wrong with my eyes or if it’s how I was sitting at the table, but in my portraits one side of the face would be perfect and the other side would look different. It looked good, it just didn’t look like the other side.
I thought, “If everything about this looks good except for the juxtaposition, then it’s still fire.” The juxtaposition looked purposeful. So, then I just started leaning into it and making it as weird as I possibly could.
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Was there a specific moment that sparked your decision to make art from popular memes? What made you realize that was a direction you should go in?
In 2015, I did a series called “In Living Color” and it was during Black History Month. I’m wildly competitive when it comes to being creative. I noticed that memes were getting so much attention on the internet and I got jealous. I was genuinely jealous because I thought, “My images will probably never get that much attention. No matter what I paint, no matter how crazy it is, no matter how creative it is, it’s probably not going to reach people like those memes will.”
I couldn’t believe nobody was drawing memes as much as people were sharing them. So, I decided I might as well paint memes but it was just this cool Black History Month series. It ended up going as viral as the memes did. I wasn’t expecting that part.
Are there connections between how Afro-surrealist ideas show up on Atlanta and how you reference them in your paintings?
There’s tons of connections. I feel like I’m a character on that show. I feel like for a long period of my life I was Earn. I was a smart, weird, lazy dude who had the right ideas and who actually knows what he’s talking about — he’s just really unmotivated.
I feel connected to that show. It shows the different little nuances of blackness in a very honest way, and I love it. That first season when they did the fake commercials —
Genius! I feel like that is a really good example of Afro-surrealism. I feel like surrealism is micro-mutations in reality or something. There’s little moments where they capture the surrealism of blackness.
How did it feel receiving a shout out from Donald Glover on Jimmy Kimmel Live? How did you feel right at that moment?
That was nuts, because I guess I had the experience of what a musician goes through when they make an album and hear it a million times. Then everybody else gets to enjoy it but it’s like, “I’m over these songs.” I was super excited about working on Atlanta but I didn’t know how to be in that same feeling [of excitement] as everybody else around me was, because I had it already once they hit me up. I was excited months ago.
So that Jimmy Kimmel moment re-did that for me. I thought, “Oh, shit is super duper real right now. This is crazy. They never really do this for artists on TV.” [Donald Glover] didn’t have to do that. It made me love him even more.
— Alim Smith (@yesterdaynite) March 30, 2022
Were there elements of your creative process as you were making work for Atlanta that were different from what you typically do?
It was absolutely different. My normal process is usually: I have an idea, I critique it for a few weeks, then I probably spend like a month or two just busting out a whole bunch of paintings. Then I just chill for a while.
But with this it was seven months of working straight, dang near every day. Usually, I finish a painting in a day and then I’m done. If I let it wait too long I’m going to keep having something to change about it.
It was difficult but it was very worth it. It helped me lock down my process. I’ve never had a process before. I felt like I needed that — to go through that art bootcamp.
What would you say is the main mission of your artistic practice? What do you want viewers to be left with after seeing your work?
“That boy good!” But seriously, I want to inspire everybody and I definitely want to inspire Black people. I just want people to feel like [the work] was very well done. I want people to say, “I feel connected to that and I love it. I feel like this person knows me somehow, and I don’t know how but I feel connected to this person.”
Daria Simone Harper is a multimedia journalist and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She aims to amplify emerging Black and brown visual artists, and to preserve the legacies of the trailblazing artists who paved the way for them. Her byline is featured in publications including Artnet News, Artsy, CULTURED Magazine, ESSENCE, i-D, and W Magazine, among others.