For many years, white men have established their dominance over most realms and it is no surprise that historically, this dominance extended to the world of art too. As a student of History of Art, I spent many hours studying about the absence of female artists and history’s failure to document the lives of successful women. While we analysed and examined the complexity and depth of gender inequality in the art world, we barely — if at all — touched upon the topic of race. It is my belief that the time to promote racial diversity in the art world is long overdue.
Nikkolas Smith is an American illustrator of colour and ‘Artivist’ based in Los Angeles. His work illustrates and comments on contemporary issues such as racial injustice, with the aim of bringing about change and encouraging people to take action.
In 2013, Smith produced what is now a famous illustration of Martin Luther King Jr. in a hoodie. This piece, Smith explained to My Modern Met, was his response to the murder of Trayvon Martin: a 17 year old who was shot to death by George Zimmerman on account of looking suspicious because he was wearing a hoodie. In his ‘MLK50’, Smith draws a connection between Martin Luther King Jr. and Trayvon Martin by the depiction of the hoodie. In an interview with My Modern Met, Smith commented on his illustration and explained that “the same ignorance, fear, and hate that he [Martin Luther King Jr.] stood against in the ’60s is the same that led to Trayvon’s death during these times“.
Since then, Smith has produced numerous illustrations responding to current events and depicting victims of racial injustice such as George Floyd whose illustration was commissioned by the Black Lives Matter group. Smith explains that a lot of the work he creates in honour of victims is usually unfinished: “I feel like that kind of is a parallel to these people’s lives because they did not get a chance to really finish their life like they should have“.
Smith’s work for the black community does not end there. In addition to his illustrations, he has also written and illustrated children’s books such as his recent My Hair Is Poofy and That’s OK!. Through books like this, Smith promotes pride, confidence and self-love in children of colour. All of these things make his work important, meaningful and absolutely necessary.
While the black community is at the centre of the majority of Smith’s work, his art addresses various other topics such as the Coronavirus pandemic and the war in Syria, amongst others.