‘It’s Like a Hidden Language’: Afro-Surrealist Artist Creates Black Meme Inspired Paintings

Black internet memes have developed a life of their own, and as Afro-surrealist artist Alim Smith, 31, says, popular Black memes embody unspoken language the Black community can easily understand. “Somebody outside the culture could see these same pictures and just see pictures, but we can tell a whole story with that stuff, and it’s deep,” Smith said.

The Wilmington, Delaware, artist took popular Black memes from the digital space to the canvas. “I look at it as modern-day hieroglyphs and emojis. You can use all of these pictures to describe a whole story without saying one word. I feel like it’s an ancient thing that we understand you don’t have to talk to talk. It’s like a double language, it’s like a hidden language,” he said.

Smith has been involved with the arts since he was 12 years old, when he developed a love for drawing cartoons, but while in art school in Delaware he had to adjust to a more Eurocentric style of art, at least for a brief period of time. “We couldn’t draw any cartoons, and the first five years we couldn’t use any color, and everything was super realism and everything black and white, pencils and charcoal,” he said.

Leading up to President Obama’s inauguration, Smith and his friend Michael Silva drew a picture of the 44th president and printed 10,000 copies to sell in barbershops, restaurants, and churches.

They attended Obama’s historic first inauguration and brought along their stack of Obama pictures, and, at $10 dollars apiece, Smith estimates they made at least $50,000. More important, Smith learned from that experience exactly where he wanted to take his art and use it to speak to the Black community. “That’s what started me into drawing Black people specifically and selling artwork,” he said.

Since then, Smith has used his art to reflect important issues within the Black community including a painting inspired by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, depicting a faceless white police officer pointing a gun at a Black baby on the ground crawling between the officer’s legs.

His art has grabbed the attention of names like Swizz Beatz, Chance the Rapper, actress Tonya Pinkins and Russell Simmons. Smith also painting promotional art for season 3 of “Atlanta.”

“Ten years ago, I feel like most Black Americans could not name more than five Black artists. Art is not new to us but it’s new to us appreciating it because of social media and Instagram and that sort of stuff,” Smith said of social media exposing Black art to more Black audiences.

According to Pew Research study conducted in April 2021, 77 percent of Black Americans use at least one social media per day, compared to 80 percent of Hispanic or Latino and 69 percent of white Americans.

Smith tapped into the popularity of viral Black internet memes, which include the likes of Kalin Elisabeth squinting, rapper Conceited pursing his lips, Kayode Ewumi grinning and pointing to his temple, Viola Davis’ unimpressed facial expression or the disgruntled face of Sweet Brown.

Smith, who now is a full-time artist, created oil paintings of more than two dozen meme-inspired works that were featured in a pop-up exhibit in Los Angeles in February titled “Family Reunion.” He says the memes speak to Black culture and bring with them a slew of emotions from laughter to seriousness that the Black community can easily relate to. “I would giggle when I get done painting these,” Smith said of the meme paintings.

Smith plans to continue using his art to convey double meanings that speak to the lived Black experience. Smith’s art can be found and purchased on his website.

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