By JR Valrey, the Minister of Information
With Hiero Day 2021 having just passed, and Black Panther History Month coming up in October, it is a perfect time to talk to visual artist Shomari Smith about his new art/street exhibit, “Thank you”, dedicated to the legends of Oakland and the Bay Area. Hung in the windows of empty store-fronts on 9th St., 10th St., and in between on Broadway in Oakland, there are portraits of people like Boots Riley and the late Pam the Funkstress of the revolutionary rap group, The Coup, also there are portraits of the late Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Tarika Lewis, the first woman Black Panther, Emory Douglas, the revolutionary artist and the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, the legendary baseball player Ricky Henderson, the late Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese political prisoner activist, survivor of the WWII internment camps, and a dear friend of Malcolm X, and Del the Funky Homosapien, a legendary wordsmith, a major architect of the Bay Area and the west coast Hip Hop sound, just to name a few.
I had to sit down with Shomari Smith because his documentation of Oakland and Bay Area historical figures is important work, not just to give pride to the youth growing up in Oakland and the Bay Area, but to assert to the current world the way in which Oakland played a part in shaping it sports-wise, politically, culturally, and musically. Please go see these magnificent pieces of art, as well as check out Shomari Smith in his own words.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about your exhibit of visual images that you have drawn, depicting some of the legends who live or lived in Oakland at one time in their lives? How do you choose who gets drawn?
Shomari Smith: The current exhibit I have is entitled, “Thank You”. It’s a series of 30 pieces thanking those individuals who are from, influenced, or have lived in Oakland or the Bay Area, who have inspired me personally or have had the pleasure to work with or learn from personally. This exhibit is on display in downtown Oakland on Broadway between 9th and 10th Streets. There are some very influential individuals included in this exhibit, including Mr. Emory Douglas, Ms. Tarika Lewis, and Ms. Yuri Kuchiyama. I included people who I have worked with or have been influenced by in politics, activism, sports, and music. There’s also a very special section dedicated to loved ones I lost in the past few years including a portrait piece of my mother. It’s a great feeling to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of my mom in this way.
JR Valrey: Who have you drawn so far? What has the response from the community been like?
Shomari Smith: I began this current portrait style in late 2015 when I was experimenting one day with some art materials. I was working on a portrait of Tupac Shakur, and decided to combine an abstract style I’ve been doing for years with a portrait style I have that uses negative space to reveal the image. I included various words and line work within the piece. What emerged was eye catching. After I shared the piece with my wife and a few friends, I knew I had something special. In 2019 I was fortunate to have 5 portraits placed in the Chase Center of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green, and Iguadala.
Now in 2021 I’ve completed over 150 portraits and the response from the community has been incredible. I have had many people tell me that it’s been uplifting to see the portraits as they pass by headed to work or school. A close friend shared that he got a renewed sense of pride to be from Oakland through the exhibit. Others have shared that the exhibit was a pleasant surprise for them as they re-emerged into society after being inside during the shelter in place order. The response has been far greater than any expectations I may have had.
JR Valrey: How long will the exhibit be up? Are the pieces for sale or do you have prints for sale?
Shomari Smith: We are planning to have the exhibit run through the end of October. The available original pieces are for sale to anyone who is interested and they’re are prints available either through contacting me on my website at www.shomarismith.com or through E14 gallery at www.e14gallery.com.
JR Valrey: Can you talk about the gallery who you are in partnership with, on this exhibit? Who owns it and what is your connection?
Shomari Smith: We opened E14 Gallery in 2016. My wife Viviana Rodriguez-Smith and I own the gallery together and Viviana handles the day-to-day operations. I’d been planning an art showing that was scheduled to happen in April 2020. That showing was canceled due to the shelter in place order. Over the next year I continued to create more work. We came up with a concept for this showing together during the COVID 19 shut down, and in early 2021 we found a way to invite the community out to view the work where people would feel safe. As the wooden boards were coming down from the building that used to house the Smart and Final grocery store on 10th & Broadway, we thought it would be great to fill those empty windows with artwork, and invite the community out for an art stroll/date night. Also for those who were uncomfortable with getting out of their cars for the reception, we encouraged them to drive by to view the exhibition. We held the reception in June of this year, it was the first event I had attended in public in over a year.
JR Valrey: What is it like to share your life with someone, as well as your life’s work? How do you manage to not over expose yourselves to each other?
Shomari Smith: That’s a great question. It’s been incredible to have my wife’s support on this journey. Any success we achieve when we’re recognized as individuals is a win for the both of us. We truly operate as a team and value each other’s opinions. Before we opened E14 Gallery, Viviana had a regular 9 to 5 for 16 years with La Clinic De La Raza. We always wanted to spend more time together, but with work and a child it was hard to find the time. Now owning and operating the gallery has us spending much more time together at work and at home. The hard part is when gallery conversations and responsibilities move in on our “couple time” but it’s been a great experience.
JR Valrey: Last year during Hiero Day, which was online, your doc and videography work was featured heavily; how do you balance being a visual artist, a videographer, and a Hip Hop historian full time?
Shomari Smith: Putting together the virtual Hiero day experience in 2020 was something I was honored to do. I’d been collecting footage and interviews at the Hiero Day events each year and was planning to put together a documentary about the festival for the 10 year anniversary. When the pandemic came along and the possibility of having Hiero Day in-person was taken away, I thought it was appropriate to use the footage I had, to compile a retrospective piece for Hiero Day 2020.
The balance between my different disciplines and interests has been fluid. I’m usually hyper-focused on the current project in front of me. It’s very rare that I creatively look back or ahead. I concentrate on the now, but not intentionally, it’s just a part of my process. I’m fortunate to have these various outlets to be creative, I think that’s what helps contribute to maintaining balance in each area.
JR Valrey: What is your creative process like? Do you have to be in a certain mood to draw?
Shomari Smith: Creativity can strike at any time for me. Every moment of every day I am viewing the world through a creative lens. Inspiration comes through conversations, music, photography, film, a walk through the town or in the trails, everywhere. My most creative time comes at night also, when the town is quiet and the energy transforms. I love to draw in the middle of the night.
JR Valrey: What are you working on as a visual artist currently?
Shomari Smith: I’m currently working on a new series of portraits with multiple images incorporated into one piece. If all goes well, I am planning to have a showing of the new work in the Spring of 2022.
JR Valrey: Your visual images were featured heavily at this years’ Hiero Day, how did you feel seeing the artists’ and the public’s reaction to your work?
Shomari Smith: Yes! I put together the first Hiero Gallery for this year’s Hiero Day. It was a display of 11 portraits total. Nine of the portraits featured the members of the Hiero Crew. The other two portraits were a tribute to 2 of the greatest Emcees to come out of the Bay Area, Zumbi of Zion I, and Gift of Gab of Blackalicious. We lost both of them in 2021. The idea was first brought to me by my colleague and friend Tim House. He thought it would be powerful to feature Crew through my portrait work at Hiero Day. After creating the portraits and identifying where we would hang the work, I reached out to my friend, highly respected graph artist Jonathan “Kufu” Brumfield to create a mural around the portraits. The result was great and the reactions and feedback were positive. At Hiero Day you can experience various forms of creativity, and it was amazing to add to that experience with my work.
The main photo is of Steve “Zumbi” Gaines of the rap group Zion I. He may have been murdered inside of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, in mid-August. Many questions remain around his passing.
All artwork and the portrait were provided by Shomari Smith.