When asked what his profession was, Alim Smith called himself a “visual philosopher”. The mission of visual philosophy is to express meaning visually and communicate knowledge with images. This is what Smith does with each of his works.
As an Afro-Surrealist artist, Smith focuses on images that connect with people in the black community, whether it’s a rapper, actress, or meme. Just take a look at her social media and you will know what I am talking about.
But his unique art style wasn’t created overnight, it came from years of growing up in Delaware, working and improving his works day by day. Now he creates art installations for instagram and the creation of promotional artwork for season 3 of Atlanta.
Here is Alim Smith and how he became the amazing artist he is today.
The root: Where does your interest in art come from? Is it something that has always interested you or something that developed later in life?
Ali Smith: I started drawing on Mario Paint in first grade. In sixth grade, I went to art school, Cab Calloway School of the Art, from sixth through high school. But in this school, we didn’t really paint a lot. It was mostly drawing like realism. So I got into painting, probably two years after graduating, because I felt like that was what people considered real art. So I learned to paint around the age of 20.
TR: What is the art scene like in Delaware, where are you from?
Ali Smith: There’s actually a nice art scene in Wilmington, Delaware. No one in particular influenced my style, but my community pushed me to keep going hard and keep painting and working. I like being from Delaware because it’s not as big as Chicago or LA or New York. I think the gift is that you are not in competition with everyone. You’d think being competitive would make you more creative, but I don’t know if that actually works when it comes to painting. You can’t rush the paint. So I think being from Delaware gives you the opportunity to be in a great environment, relax, sit in the park, come alive and be as weird and obscure as possible because I’m in such a dark place.
TR: How did you find your unique art style?
Ali Smith: So Hip-Hop definitely plays a huge influence on me having my own style because I thought to be a dope artist you had to be original, you had to have your own voice. This played a huge role in my desire to have my own style artistically because for a long time I was content to draw realistic portraits. So what helped me develop my style, ironically, was insecurity. So because I went to art school where everything had to be realistic and perfect. When I was drawing faces, one side of the face was phenomenal, but the other side of the face was just off center. So for a long time I was just drawing half of the picture. I wouldn’t even draw the other half. And then I thought to myself, you know what? It’s not like the photo doesn’t look like the person, it’s just a little off. You know what, I’m going to lean into that as much as possible so I’m going to make it great, instead of hating it and having this insecurity about it.
TR: What prompted your works to focus more on memes and social media?
Ali Smith: What brought me into this was Nina Simone. She has a quote that says, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Ever since I heard that quote, I’ve always thought about creating art that reflects what’s happening now. When I was in school, I noticed how memes had a lot more interaction and traction than anything anyone else was creating. I was like, you know what, it’s still black people, I can still do portraits.
I love that they aren’t really celebrities. But because of the memes, they’re sort of celebrities. So I decided to paint these memes for Black History Month. Because I think at least I know, black people will vibe with it, they’ll see it and think, it’s drugs. But I didn’t really think how viral it would go. I was just trying to do something that I thought was stupid.
TR: What’s it like going from just painting memes to actually working with Instagram, where memes get shared all the time?
Ali Smith: It’s crazy. It’s out of my domain because it wasn’t something I thought I was doing. They contacted me while I was working on the artwork to Atlanta. Which is insane because I wasn’t reaching out to people trying to work with them. I tried to be like an underground rapper with my art, building my buzz as much as possible until people wanted to work with me. But working with Instagram means people see the value in my work.
TR: How did you start working on the artwork for FX’s Atlanta and what was it like creating the artwork for the show? Was it difficult?
Ali Smith: A month before the opportunity presented itself, I remember talking with my friend about how I hadn’t been able to use my creative abilities at all. It was a real sincere conversation. Then a month later, a bunch of random commissions appeared out of nowhere. But then the Atlanta one popped up and I was like, “That’s crazy!”. But I thought it was a joke bBecause sometimes you get big commissions and then they disappear.
So I started the project in August and it didn’t end until February. The process was absolutely grueling, in the best way. I wouldn’t do this process for a show I don’t like. I’ve been watching Donald Glover since I was in high school. As I like Atlanta so much that I just wanted to be a part of it because I knew it was going to be huge. But it was a very intense process, I had to do over 300 edits before I even started painting the images. Like changing an eyebrow maybe 20 times or changing the color of a shirt 30 times.
TR: How difficult was the creative process trying to create a piece that best fit the show?
Ali Smith: It was the most intense part of the process. It started with crazy, distorted surrealism. For some people you might not have been able to tell who the characters are but you could tell it was Atlanta.
The process of making the characters look like was a long one. I must have drawn all of their faces over 100 times and some of the first sketches I did ended up being what they ended up being. But I was so stressed that my work would become a meme for the show and people would hate it. I thought I was going to ruin the whole third season. But now I’m able to say “I did my thing”.
TR: How is it to see your artwork on billboards and in the show?
Ali Smith: I always try to assimilate it fully, it’s always very surreal. Because it was just on my phone for months, I just watched it on my computer for the most part. I mean, I’m still watching it through a screen, but now it’s like being broadcast by the network. So it’s always surreal. And the fact that it debuted on my birthday, all of that just doesn’t seem real. It’s crazy.
TR: What do you think you bring to the artistic style of Afro-surrealism?
Ali Smith: I devote myself to Afro surrealism. I think the term “afro-surrealism” encompasses my reality as a black person. I’ve always been weird. My whole life has been like Afro-surrealism. Everything I am and think is through a strange black lens. I know that I bring a wealth of knowledge and creativity to this kind of art. This is my way. I bring creativity. I bring an overview. I bring a new perspective. I bring the future to Afro-Surrealism.
TR: I see you have a lot of rappers and musical artists in your works. What is the music that inspires your work? Which musical artist creates music similar to your work?
Ali Smith: Definitely Flying Lotus. They definitely fix the production in the soundscape of my works. But it would also be like Flying Lotus meets Pharrell meets Andre 300 meets Nola bounce meets the first Dipset wave.