Wilmington artist shares creative impulses

Alim Smith (Yesterday Nite)
Courtesy of Alim Smith


After learning of the murder of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in 2012, Wilmington artist Alim Smith painted a gripping image of a faceless white police officer holding a gun over a black infant, juxtaposing their contrasting complexions on an off-white piece of cardboard. Smith created the piece within 15 minutes, took a photo of it with his phone and shared it on the Internet, where it garnered hundreds of likes and shares.

“That was the closest I’ve ever gotten to expressing an idea without writing anything that goes along with it,” Smith, 25, says.

Smith makes explicit, personal and politically-conscious paintings and prints under the name “Yesterday Nite”—a platform that has allowed him to connect with mass audiences through live exhibitions and social media, among various other mediums. In just the past year, Smith has created over 30 pieces and two original storybooks, which he authored and illustrated.

“It’s something I can’t shake,” he says of his artistic impulse. “I have to express myself.”

"Untitled" by Alim Smith (Yesterday Nite)

“Untitled,” inspired by the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Smith’s initial introduction into the art world began with a fleeting love interest at an early age. Toward the end of elementary school, a girl with whom he was infatuated was accepted into Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington, compelling Smith to compose his own portfolio—comprised of pieces that ranged from a self-portrait to a painting of Garfield.

Smith entered middle school at Cab Calloway, where he developed a passion for art and discovered a sense of focus that pushed him to constantly create without distraction.

“I’m still trying to get that focus back,” he says.

Smith sold his first piece in middle school—a portrait for his mom’s friend—and began painting portraits of cultural icons, a source of inspiration on which he would later expand. He met fellow artists Mike Silva and Terrance Vann, with whom he formed the art collective Paper Cut Kids.

It was also during this time that Smith came across what remains one of his primary sources of inspiration today: the works of renowned Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. In class one day, Smith found a teacher’s book of Escher’s work and was so enthralled by its contents that he stole it.

“I still have the book in the back of my car, too,” Smith says, noting that Escher is still one of the only artists with whom he is concerned.

Smith continued creating art throughout his high school years at Cab Calloway, working with different tools to hone his skills.

“I actually got into Photoshop trying to learn how to make report cards,” he says.

By the time he graduated high school in 2008, Smith had been diagnosed with epilepsy and his mother had lost her job, prompting him to opt out of further pursuing art school. But he continued to create, right from his living room.

By the following January, Smith and Silva drew a portrait of Barack Obama and went door to door around their neighborhood selling copies. Noting the positive response, they traveled to Washington, D.C. and sold the portrait to attendants at the inaugural address.

"Obama Portrait" by Alim Smith (Yesterday Nite)

“Obama Portrait”

Smith says he is devoted to creating art that is heavily inspired by entertainment (primarily music and comedy), women and black culture.

“Music is the most powerful art form, just because you can’t turn it off,” he says.

During his creative process, however, he prefers to listen to comedic stand-up routines, the boldness of which he admires.

“You’re just up there by yourself, saying what you feel and what you think,” he says.

While Smith may have moved on from his childhood crush at Cab Calloway, he is quick to admit that women continue to inform many of his artistic decisions.

“If a girl is like, ‘Yo, that’s really nice,’ that makes me want to draw a 100 more nice pictures,” he says with a laugh.

"Miss Universe" by Alim Smith (Yesterday Nite)

“Miss Universe”

Smith says the presence of black culture in his work serves as a form of self-expression and education.

In his most recent exhibition, held earlier this month at The LOOM in Philadelphia, Smith paid homage to black cultural icons that have influenced him in a series titled “In Living Color.” He worked to provide audiences with a unique perspective of the impact these figures have had on his generation.

“Tupac was our modern-day Malcolm X,” he says.

Smith describes the spelling error in “Yesterday Nite” as the overarching motive behind his work, explaining that its unsettling nature is meant to be evocative.

“It’s wrong, but it feels good,” he says.

It is the rhythm and life of his subjects, the dark humor embedded within each brushstroke, the rich cultural inspiration and the bold, often sensual nature of his work that distinguish Yesterday Nite.

“I want you to get what I’m trying to say when I say it,” he says.

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