Art style

Alim Smith turns viral black memes into art. Now he does illustrations for Donald Glover’s “Atlanta”

Culture – 5 days ago

Alim Smith turns viral memes into art.  Now he creates the artwork for

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Arielle Lines

Okayplayer spoke with Alim Smith about Afro-Surrealism, turning memes into art, his work for Atlanta, and more.

In 2022, memes have become an important way to engage with others, sometimes appearing as a separate communication system in their own right. From interacting with other users on social media to flooding group chat threads, it’s almost hard to imagine a moment on the internet without them. The best memes — those that reach heights of almost unfathomable virality — have the ability to capture moments in time and articulate indescribable ideas or phenomena in ways that seem shocking. Seeing the increase in the rate at which people were sharing memes, Delaware-based interdisciplinary artist Alim Smith began turning some of the internet’s most viral memes — especially those popularized by Black Twitter — into exuberant surreal paintings.

Smith was determined that his paintings reach a wider audience. What began as a project to honor his commitment to complete an annual Black History Month series quickly gained 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 has recently earned him a role in the creation poster illustration from FX’s final season Atlanta, with Smith creating brightly colored artwork depicting the show’s main characters – Earn, Vanessa, Darius and Alfred (aka Paper Boi) – with his distinctive flair. The grid-like portrait can be seen on billboards and advertisements across the country; Show creator Donald Glover even paid tribute to Smith and his promotional art for the show during an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Alim Smith turns viral memes into art.  Now he creates the artwork for

Photo credit: JC Olivera/Getty Images)

Over the years, Smith drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, including his family such as his artist aunt Earlene Smith (whom 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 writes in his first article published on his Instagram account dedicated to his late uncle. Smith also looks to graphic designer MC Escher, as well as the whimsical worlds and rhymes of Dr. Seuss, for his creative approach.

Okayplayer spoke with Smith about his thoughts on Afro-Surrealism, turning memes into art, his work for Atlantaand more.

In the past you have described Afro-Surrealism as “all things black and weird”. Can you elaborate a bit on this description of what Afro-surrealism is for 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 uses that in art. Let’s go with that. It’s just weird. It is 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 it.

I have the impression that there is sometimes a confusion between afro-futurism and afro-surrealism, what do you think?

I use the term Afro-surrealism rather than Afro-futurism, because I want to be present with my blackness. I don’t know what will happen in the future.

You have been creating and sharing works on social media in this style for years now. I’m curious what attracted you to the style of surrealism to begin with?

There are levels. It all started with Dr. Seuss and these crazy stories like Oh, the places you will go! and [One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish].

Second, when I was in college, I found this book by an artist called MC Escher. He made some super dope art. It was simply magnificent. Dr. Seuss and MC Escher definitely inspired my approach.

As for 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 was the way I sat at the table, but in my portraits one side of the face would be perfect and the other would be different. It looked good, it just didn’t look like the other side.

I thought, “If everything looks good except for the juxtaposition, then it’s still on fire.” The juxtaposition seemed helpful. So, I started to lean into it and make it as weird as possible.

Is there a specific moment that triggered your decision to create art from popular memes? What made you realize this was a direction you should go?

In 2015, I made a series called “In living colorand it was during Black History Month. I’m extremely 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 really jealous because I thought, “My pictures will probably never get this 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 these memes will.

I couldn’t believe no one drew so many memes as people shared them. So, I decided I might as well paint memes, but it was just this cool Black History Month streak. It ended up going as viral as the memes. I didn’t expect this part.

Are there connections between how Afro-Surrealist ideas appear on Atlanta and how do you reference them in your paintings?

There are tons of connections. I feel like a character on this show. I feel like for a long time in my life I was won over. I was a smart, weird, lazy guy who had good ideas and really knew what he was talking about – he was really unmotivated.

I feel connected to this show. It shows the different little shades of darkness in a very honest way, and I love that. That first season where they did the fake ads –

Genius.

Genius! I feel like it’s a very good example of Afro-surrealism. I feel like surrealism is micro-mutations in reality or something. There are little moments where they capture the surrealism of darkness.

How did you feel receiving a shoutout from Donald Glover on Jimmy Kimmel Live? How did you feel at that time?

It was crazy, 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 everyone can enjoy it, but it’s like, “I’m done with these songs.” I was super excited to work on Atlanta But I didn’t know how to be in this same feeling [of excitement] like everyone around me, because I already had it once they hit me. I was excited months ago.

So that moment Jimmy Kimmel did it again for me. I thought, “Oh shit, this is super duper real right now. It’s crazy. They never really do that for artists on TV. [Donald Glover] didn’t have to do that. It made me love him even more.

Were there elements of your creative process when you were working for Atlanta that were different from what you usually 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 a month or two putting out a whole bunch of paintings. Then I relax for a while.

But with that, it was seven months of work in a row, almost every day. Usually I finish a painting in a day and then I’m done. If I let him wait too long, I’ll keep having something to change about it.

It was tough but totally worth it. It helped me lock down my process. I have never had a procedure before. I felt like I needed this – to go through this art bootcamp.

According to you, what is the main mission of your artistic practice? What do you want viewers to have left after seeing your work?

“That good boy!” But seriously, I want to inspire everyone and I really 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 this 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. It aims to amplify emerging black and brown visual artists and preserve the legacy of pioneering artists who paved the way for them. His signature is featured in publications such as Artnet News, Artsy, CULTURED Magazine, ESSENCE, iD and W Magazine, among others.