Alim Smith is a talented artist from Delaware whose art has been featured in galleries throughout the East Coast. He labels himself an "Afro Surrealist" and lately he’s been gaining some attention for his series that features paintings of iconic memes.
Smith aims to create art inspired by entertainment and especially black culture. He says that through his work, black culture serves as a form of self-expression and education. His style is also inspired heavily by Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher.
His alias, Yesterday Nite, is misspelled intentionally. He says it’s the underlying inspiration of his work in that it’s unsettling and meant to be evocative. “It’s wrong, but it feels good,” he explains.
Memes certainly serve to make people laugh, but they can also be used to convey important social messages and commentaries. Smith told Time recently that he was inspired by the way that social media culture can connect so many people every single day. He adds that memes by themselves “represent a powerful form of art.”
He also says that “people don’t realize how genius memes are. It’s just like emojis -- you don’t even need to say anything, the other person just gets it. They capture everything you need to express instantly.” Insightful!
In his "Memes" series, Smith has painted everything from the crying Michael Jordan meme to Keisha Johnson, the “Confused-Face Girl.” He explains that the memes are, “Powerful, because they are a connector for millions who use the internet each and every day. [It’s] a visual representation of contemporary culture, and specifically black culture, as it exists in social media.”
Smith says that his process is different depending on what he’s creating, but insists that, “I usually start off by turning on a long-ass podcast or an album I don’t mind not listening to all the way through. Then I just get to work. I just need some kind of continuous sound in the background. I can’t create in silence.”
On his Instagram page, Smith writes that he started the "Memes" series as a part of Black History Month. But, he says, he didn’t want to do, “The regular Malcolm X, Rosa Parks s***.” Instead, he explains that he wanted, “To celebrate something that has become an incredible part of black culture.”
This painting, based on the well-known "So You’re Telling Me" meme, reminds Smith of his nephew, he says on his Instagram page. He says that most of the paintings in his "Memes" series remind him of his family members and that he forgets he’s actually painting portraits of complete strangers.
Perhaps one of the most recognized memes out there, Smith says about this one that he’s seen this expression his whole life. He also says that after painting the portraits he feels like he actually knows the people. “And,” he adds, “I obviously don’t but I never realized how valuable expression and being expressive is.” He also learned through this painting that he could paint teeth. It definitely shows!
Smith says that, “These memes have by far been my favorite pieces to make because I’m just giggling the whole time I’m painting.” He says that he has a special place in his heart for this particular painting, based on this meme, because, “I have and know several Uncle Denzels.”
“[This one] just makes me feel so many emotions idk if it’s the eyes or the smirk but it just makes me smile,” Smith writes on Instagram. He also comments that through painting this particular portrait, he came to realize that he, “thoroughly, thoroughly enjoys painting clouds.”
He started making art at an early age while attending an art school in Delaware. He admits that he had no idea how to draw when he applied to the school, and that he only applied because a girl he had a crush on was attending the school.
However, he soon discovered that he had a knack for creating portraits (like the one pictured).
Smith says he could never get his portraits to look exactly like his subjects, but instead of fighting it, he embraced it, and began intentionally jumbling the facial features until he developed his own surreal style. We can see that here with his portrait of Andre 3000.
Since then, he’s been embracing the beauty of black culture.
Smith’s style is definitely reminiscent of Picasso’s work in that he skews his subjects’ facial features in order to evoke unsettling feelings. But, he puts his own unique spin on it, as the jumbled-up portraits feel rather endearing with their rainbow-tinted skin tones and exaggerated features.
After meeting fellow artists Mike Silva and Terrance Vann, the three organized the art collected The Paper Cut Kids. Smith and Silva went on to draw a portrait of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. They went door-to-door selling copies, and after receiving copious positive feedback, they decided to travel to Washington DC to sell the portrait at the inaugural address.