26-year-old Delaware-based painter Alim Smith, who makes art under the name Yesterdaynite, is turning images of black people used in viral memes into a series of skillfully-painted Afro-surrealist oil paintings.
In his Memes series, which will be shown at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington Delaware on March 31, Smith imagines the people of color we've frequently seen on our phone screens as a loving, dysfunctional family. He began posting the paintings in February for Black History Month to celebrate, as he says in an Instagram post, "something that has become an incredible part of black culture: MEMES."
"People don't realize how genius memes are," Smith tells Creators over the phone. "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."
Smith got his start making art at an early age while attending Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a creative and performing arts middle school in Wilmington, Delaware. When he applied to the school, Smith didn't know how draw, saying he chose the school because he knew a girl he had a crush on was going to Calloway. Because comic illustration wasn't allowed at Calloway ("Which was bullshit," he tells me) Smith was forced to learn how to draw. Fast.
At Calloway and then into high school, Smith discovered he had a talent for portraiture. He says he embraced the fact that he often couldn't get his subjects to look "just right," choosing to jumble and stretch the noses, eyes, and mouths of his subjects onto claustrophobically-cropped faces. With this surreal style, he celebrates the beauty and power of blackness—the beauty and power of black celebrities, black friends, black family, black acquaintances, and black memes.
Often focusing heavily on famous black musicians and actors, Smith paints in a pleasingly Picasso-esque style. Though he magnifies and deflates his figures' faces, it doesn't feel like it's at the expense of his subjects. If anything, his twists on faces feel empathetic, literally adding nuance to well-known visages with inflated facial features and subtle rainbow-tinted skin tones. As he explains on his website, the unsettling nature is meant to be evocative, like his intentionally misspelled name Yesterdaynite: "It's wrong, but it feels good."
As far as his meme portraits, Smith playfully reclaims and celebrates the black celebrities and bystanders that have been meme-ified, removing prescriptive captions and placing these iconic figures into sparse, whimsical situations. Smith imagines a grizzled Denzel Washington at a surreal barbecue, skeptical rapper Conceited floating in the heavens, and confused Keisha Johnson giving the stink eye against a Bob Ross-meets-Lisa-Frank ocean view.
"I'm really into storytelling," Smith said. "Even though these memes are popular, to me they're isolated. I'm creating a family— they were ostracized, and now they're together."
"Those memes are iconic, and they should be celebrated."
Alim Smith's Memes series will be shown at the Chris White Gallery in Wilmington Delaware on March 31. You can find his website here, and follow him on Instagram here.
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