Alim Smith Transforms Memes into Masterpieces of Contemporary Art

Artwork: Conceited (l.) and Keisha Johnson (r.) © Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith

Michael Jordan was the GOAT on the court—he staked his legacy on this. And when it came time to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, decades of emotion poured forth, and suddenly the king of the game was as human as the rest of us. It was a moment as heartrending and it was unexpected, his man who had always dominated was suddenly vulnerable.

Also: “By Any Memes Necessary” Invokes the Spirit of Andy Warhol & Marcel Duchamp

A moment like this might have slipped into the annals of history, only to be remembered by those truly dedicated to his legacy. But then, the Internet came along and it unearthed a still image of Jordan at his most red-eyed, as tears covered his face, and transformed it into the greatest meme ever to troll the earth. On the court or on the screen Jordan simply cannot defeated: his power is just that great.

Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith, The Jordan River.

Over the past few years, the meme has become one of the most prominent, popular, and evocative forms of visual culture. A slice of life is lifted from the pie and reinserted by the public however they desire. Distilling an emotion into its purest form, a meme captures a sentiment far better than words ever could; recontextualized as a response to a new situation, a meme tells you everything you need to know in a single glance.

By and large, the meme has been treated ad disposable; its creators are rarely recognized or known. They are the great anonymous artists of our era, their contributions unrecognized. Perhaps the meme is too new, too fresh, too raw—but this is what gives it its power and speaks to artist Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith, who has created a body of work inspired by the memes of Black Twitter.

Crying Jordan, Uncle Denzel, and Roll Safe are just a few of Smith’s spot-on portraits of your faves. While the memes are instantly recognizable, Smith has taken them to the next level by adding his signature touch: the hand of the artist and the eye of the Afro-Surrealist.

The Afro-Surrealist movement emerged in the mid-1920s, taking shape in the Harlem Renaissance, and finding its way into various forms of art, music, photography, film, and poetry. The term was first coined in 1988 by Amiri Baraka, and can be seen in works by artists as diverse as illustrated by the works of Romare Bearden, Kool Keith, Deana Lawson—and now, Alim Smith.

“Just being black in America is a surreal experience in and of itself,” Smith explains. Undoubtedly, that becomes clear the more you gaze upon his work, seeing not just the memes, but also the history of art. Smith’s paintings evoke the Cubist style that Pablo Picasso created in response to African art, deftly bringing us full circle to where it all began, showing the curious commingling of creative thought across continents, across centuries, and across mediums as unlikely as memes and oil paint.

In celebration of this incredible body of work, Meme Show: A Solo Exhibition of Works by Yesterday Nite at the Chris White Gallery, Wilmington, DE, opening on Friday, March 31, 2017. The opening night event will feature a series of performances by artists including Nadja Nicole, semi-finalist on The Voice, poet and visual artist Janiah Bradley, and songstress Vanessa Miller. Smith, Terrance Vann, and Smashed Label will be live painting as well. Smith will also be unveiling Afro Cereal, a collaboration with blogger Melissa Benbow.

In the spirit of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Smith will be selling prints—but not originals. Those, he plans to take on tour with the air of bringing them to a top museum, where they rightfully belong.

“Memes express a million ideas with a single image. In a way, they are a step above icons in terms of their symbolism,” Smith reveals. “Black people made memes important. We are such an expressive people. Our facial expressions and body language communicate so much, and I think that is why we create and share memes at such a viral rate. Memes are a sort of language for us…or a way for us to catalog and, maybe epigraph our unique cultural experiences. I wanted to pay homage to that meme and others that have brought so much laughter and entertainment.”

All artwork: © Yesterday Nite aka Alim Smith

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.