Enjoying Black art comes with a duty to reflect on racism in America

Enjoying Black art comes with a duty to reflect on racism in America
Comment: This is a crucial moment. It's up to us to take a stand and actively work to tear down this centuries-old pandemic, writes concept artist and illustrator, Nikkolas Smith.
6 min read
15 Jun, 2020
Nikkolas' latest painting, 'Reflect', is a response to the growing protest movement [Nikkolas Smith]
As a young Black kid from the suburbs of Houston, I was raised believing I could become everything I wanted. I was very privileged to grow up in a Black family full of pride in who we are, where we came from, and hardworking values. 

My mom and dad were always giving me positive affirmations, and daily Bible verses to recite.

I went to an Historically Black College (HBCU), Hampton University in Virginia to study Architecture, where some of my best memories centered around my immersion in the quintessential Black culture experience.

I joined the step team and the marching band, everything that you might have seen when Beyonce brought this Black experience to her seminal 
Coachella performance. But as every Black kid growing up in America, I also received "the talk" from my parents about "keeping my hands in sight" if the police were to stop me while driving, because the truth is, it will happen and you must know how to interact in those situations. 

So, while America loves to exploit Black culture when it comes to music and entertainment, all of a sudden it becomes a problem when we talk about oppression and systematic racism in everyday life; issues that are intrinsic to the history of this Native land, and how it was first invaded and stolen through colonialism, then built by enslaved people.

There are too many skeletons in the closet that America has never really dealt with, and as a result, those communities that were historically oppressed are still being oppressed today.

Black culture has been historically drained or embraced for American profit

Because of our nation's original sin, I do believe America is at a serious point of reckoning. It should not be lost on anyone that we just hit the 400 year anniversary of enslaved people seeing American soil in 1619. The gradual buildup of unrest following the too many tragic events of the last couple years has reached a boiling point. Four hundred years ago is still a recent memory, but what have we learned, if anything, from history?

The truth is Black culture that has been historically drained or embraced for American profit is intrinsically linked to the Black lives that are too often destroyed by the American system. And even now, thanks to cellphones and social media, these murders have become more visible, but there is still a problem with holding murderous law enforcement officials accountable. 

As a concept artist seeing so much brokenness, I like to draw the world that I want to see. And in my Sunday Sketch series, I bring my perspective as a Black artist and celebrate Black culture and what it means to be Black in America.

But it has also become one of the ways I do what I call 
Artivism, bringing awareness to issues of social injustice, and inspiring people to act towards a positive change in the world.

When current events take a painful turn, I can't look away. And what started seven years ago as a therapeutic activity, naturally evolved into a call for action, where my sketches are a mirror to what is happening to the world and our society.

I have paid tribute to many victims of police brutality, and the reactions never cease to amaze me. Many people of all colours have reached out to me thanking me for creating art that has allowed them to process their feelings for the first time, after witnessing another video of a Black person being killed. My Artivism is a tool, a weapon, a superpower aimed at bending that moral arc of the universe a bit closer towards justice. 

Read more: The statues are tumbling down, the structures of racism must follow

But this moment feels different to me. The anger and sadness was definitely present when Mike Brown was murdered years ago, but it is clear that multiple factors have contributed to today's last-straw scenario.

We have a clear and tragically gripping video of each incident, a growing distrust of government and law enforcement, and a health crisis due to Covid-19 that has millions of Americans on the brink of despair. But a key factor now is that people are extremely tired of Black lives being disrespected and taken from this Earth prematurely, especially at the hands of law enforcement. 

I feel like a prominent piece of Black American culture has identified itself: the act of protesting. It is incredible to see how many Black and Brown activists have screamed their loudest creating a powerful art movement. Art that has then been printed on banners, posters, shared by hundreds of thousands on social media and has filled up the streets with the explosive cries of protesters demanding justice, accountability, immediate change, vowing not to take no for an answer. 

In this very crucial moment in US history, everyone can use their gifts and talents as an instrument to speak out and tell the world that injustice and hate will not be tolerated. For me, that role is fulfilled through my paintings. I painted the George Floyd piece because a lynching by any other name is still a lynching.

This latest case of police brutality was yet another injustice that moved me to paint a tribute to give honour and a voice to a voiceless victim. 
George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery, and countless other Black lives in this country are being destroyed by a virus of racism, fear, and hatred.

I truly believe that is up to everyone to take a stand and actively work to tear down this centuries-old pandemic. The outcry in the streets is meant to wake us up to the ideal that the advancement of human life should always come before the inflation of profit and authoritarian power.

I painted the George Floyd piece because a lynching by any other name is still a lynching

My latest piece entitled Reflect is my response to this protest environment that has blossomed, unnecessarily injected with aggressive, violent, attacks from American law enforcement and "riot police", while standing up (or taking a knee) in support of Black lives. To all of you on the front lines, protesting in the face of injustice, this art speaks to your duty to REFLECT:

"So that they may see what they have become…

So that they may see what they have become…

So that they may see your light.

So that they may see what they have become…

So that we may see what they have always been."


With Juneteenth approaching, a day marking the "official" end of slavery in America, Black people are reminded even more this week of the ideals and importance of freedom from oppression.

June 19, 1865 was the beginning of the proverbial knee being lifted off the neck of Black America, only to discover the constant reminder throughout the civil rights era and to the present moment that that knee isn't being lifted fast enough.

Through art, activism, 
legislation, and protest, we will continue to push back, in defense of our God given right to breathe freely. 

Nikkolas Smith, a native of Houston, Texas, is a concept artist, children's book author, and Hollywood film illustrator. He is the author/illustrator of The Golden Girls of Rio, nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and My Hair Is Poofy And That's Okay.

As an illustrator of color and an Artivist, Nikkolas is focused on creating captivating art that can spark important conversations in today's world and inspire meaningful change.

Follow him on Instagram: @nikkolas_smith or Twitter: @4NIKKOLAS

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.