Enlighten Me: Wilmington artist Alim Smith creates "urban mythologies"
Local artist Alim Smith has gained national attention for his surrealist takes on viral memes and pop culture icons.
And in this edition of Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt talked to the Wilmington native about his newest project— creating what he calls “urban mythology.”
Alim Smith paints in a style he calls afro-surrealism.
He says that looks like “Disneyland. Or no, it would look like all of your favorite cartoons and mystical worlds, with black people in them.”
The 28-year-old Wilmington native went viral last year for his renditions of popular memes. He’s also painted the likes of Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu— what he says Black History Month might look like from a millennial’s perspective.
He says he’s moving away from portraiture now, and toward visual folklore.
Smith’s only formal training was at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington.
He says his signature style is inspired by the work of M.C. Escher.
“He is my absolute favorite artist. ‘Cause I feel like he is the perfect mix of creativity and skill. And that’s what I’m aiming for. Mostly M.C. Escher and Dali. I just love how they twisted reality,” he said. “Because growing up in art school I didn’t really like art that much, like the art that they showed us. Because it was very— bleh. It’s just a picture.
“You really have to play with colors. You really have to make someone’s eyes move around the page. Cause most of the time people are just going to look at you picture for a couple seconds. So I just wanted to create art that would make people stop. For at least ten seconds.”
The internet has played a pivotal role in Smith’s career as an artist. He says he’s able to support himself financially by selling prints online and doing commissions.
Much of his success started last year, when his meme series went viral. He was interviewed in several national news outlets, including Time.
“I think mostly it just made me more confident in my ideas,” said Smith. “‘Cause I wasn’t doing it to go viral and get a lot of attention. I had a pattern, I was going to drop a different series every year during Black History Month.”
“It made me feel like I was an actual artist,” he said. “If I was playing before, now I’m actually an artist. I have to go with this thing. Because I was just like painting pictures. I never felt like I created what I considered art yet. So it made me just take a second and not rush on my next work.”
Smith says he feels his quick rise in recognition affected the quality of his art.
“A lot of my art so far has been rushed,” he said. “Like the meme series, I started that and it started catching attention before I even knew all the memes I was going to paint. I was just uploading work. I was making those in two or three days. I wasn’t putting actual time and thought and consideration into the pieces.”
Smith appreciates how the internet has allowed him to be independent as an artist — not dependant on the traditional centers of power in the industry, like the gallery scene.
But he says the internet has its downsides.
“The internet I feel like has really washed down and watered down art. And a lot of people are in a rush to upload things just to be like ‘I’m creating, I’m creating, I’m creating.’” said Smith.
“But none of the greats had that pressure … Because it waters down the work. It takes away from the work. I just really want to push the envelope. I don’t care if people like it as much, I just want to do something that like — okay wow, that’s different.”
He says the intense and ubiquitous nature of the internet inspires the surrealism in his work.
“There’s not a lot of representation for weird black stuff,” said Smith. “But black people are weird too. We have crazy ideas too, like we’re not just listening to rap and not thinking about the future. And not thinking about artificial intelligence … We’re thinking about all of that stuff. And how it will affect us. And how we look in those realities. And how we create our own realities.”
And with his current series, Smith is building what he calls “urban mythology.”
“There are no stories for the African-American experience. Like folklore-type stories. That doesn’t exist,” he said.
“We just got Jesus, and different religions. But we don’t have anything that relates us and describes us and originates from us. So that’s my focus. It’s just creating a story around what already exists and adding value to it. Adding value to durags, making a whole legend behind durags. And not it just being a thing that just happened out of nowhere.”
Smith says one painting in this story draws on imagery from his youth in Wilmington.
“Have you ever drank a Mistic? It’s a terrible drink, it’s delicious and it’s mostly in corner stores. It’s terrible, but it has a beautiful bottle. So I have this painting of a genie coming out of a mistic bottle.”
And another work that’s still in progress:
“There’s one piece of an eight-armed drummer named 808. Because everybody loves the 808 drum,” said Smith. “It has a history, but it doesn’t have a bigger, grander like Greek mythology-type history to it. So it’s this black dude who has eight arms who plays drums, and he has this whole parade of people following him. And he is the god of music”
Smith currently splits his time among Wilmington, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J. But he says his hometown has helped his creative process.
“It’s not a lot of things to do,” said Smith. “You’re not distracted by a whole bunch of parties or celebrities coming in. There’s nothing really happening here. So it’s just a great place to just focus and chill. Just taking in your ideas, and having no pressure to do anything. Wilmington is kind of still in the ‘90s or something. Which I feel like is great, ‘cause a lot of people are rushing.”
But he says there’s a downside to Wilmington’s slower pace as well.
“When I think of like a rat or a mouse in a maze, Wilmington feels like a great place for the maze. But there’s no cheese,” said Smith.
“A lot of people just get stuck in a loop I feel like. Because there’s nothing to do. There’s a little culture but there’s not a lot of culture. Everything closes early,” he said. “I feel like if it was an experiment that people were looking at, they would just want to see what do people do when they have nothing to do.”
Smith says he plans to explore this theme in a future series.
Smith’s art can be found online under the name YESTERDAYNITE.
Delaware Public Media' s arts coverage is made possible, in part, by support from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.