Nikkolas Smith unveils “The Artivist,” an artistic call to activism

In a world where the power of visuals often transcends words, Nikkolas Smith, renowned illustrator of notable works like The 1619 Project: Born on the Water and I Am Ruby Bridges, continues his mission of advancing social justice causes through art.

His latest masterpiece, The Artivist, illuminates the path of a young Black child who weaves their artistry with activism to spark transformation on a global scale.

In this exclusive interview with Publishers Weekly, Nikkolas Smith delves into the origins of “artivism,” the inspiration behind his book, and the essential message he hopes budding artivists will take away from his story.

For Nikkolas Smith, artivism is the quintessential vehicle for manifesting activism in the world. He recognises that art possesses an innate ability to captivate hearts and minds, making it a potent instrument for inspiring change. Smith’s journey into this fusion of art and activism began with his “Sunday Sketch” series, a decade-old project that started as personal therapy but quickly became a platform for healing, expression, and ultimately, social change. This journey revealed to him the transformative power of art – its capacity to engage, inspire, and mobilise individuals towards positive action.

Smith firmly believes that everyone harbours creative potential, making them potential artivists in their own right. He emphasises that artivism transcends traditional painting; it encompasses poetry, dance, music, filmmaking, and more. His invitation to all is simple: “What change will you create?”

Central to The Artivist is the choice of a Black child as its protagonist. Smith, a Black author-illustrator, considers it his duty to shine a spotlight on underrepresented voices in children’s literature. He believes that such representation is pivotal in bridging the diversity gap in kids’ books. Moreover, Smith envisions young Black children as ideal protagonists for addressing pressing social issues. These young minds, often exposed to injustices, harbour boundless creativity and solutions. *The Artivist* offers them an outlet to explore, understand, and catalyse change.

Nikkolas Smith’s distinctive visual style is an integral part of The Artivist. His “Sunday Sketch” series, characterised by speed and spontaneity, forms the foundation of the book’s aesthetic. These paintings are vibrant, emotive, and invoke the feel of oil on canvas. They capture the essence of movement, an essential aspect of Smith’s work.

The urban setting of the book, reminiscent of a New York cityscape, is designed to evoke the spirit of a young Basquiat. This setting, rich with skyscrapers and open spaces for street art, represents a canvas where the young protagonist’s journey unfolds. Through various art styles depicted in the book, Smith encourages readers to explore the diversity of visual art forms, highlighting that art can be as simple as scribbling with a crayon – a form of artist therapy that can evolve into transformative, world-altering art.

Among the myriad activist themes explored in The Artivist, one stands out as an essential takeaway – the concept that love is a verb. Smith wants readers, especially budding artivists, to grasp that love goes beyond mere sentiment; it is a call to action. Love involves giving, protesting, protecting, donating, helping, acting, and listening. It is a multidimensional force that can drive profound change.

In Smith’s artivist journey, social media and the voices of countless individuals have played a pivotal role. They have guided him in addressing pressing issues and becoming a mirror reflecting the world’s struggles and triumphs. The key, he suggests, is to listen to the people and let their stories shape your art, creating a dynamic dialogue that drives positive change.

Nikkolas Smith’s The Artivist is a visual and literary testament to the fusion of art and activism. It is a call to action for all, young and old, to harness their creative potential for the greater good. As he concludes, “We have to take all of this stuff and reflect it back so that we can see what’s happening.” The Artivist is more than a book; it’s an artistic manifesto for a world in need of change.


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