How to Look at Atatiana Jefferson

Image: Nikkolas Smith

Every Sunday for the last six years, artist Nikkolas Smith has taken out his iPad in his Los Angeles home, blocking out a few hours to paint whatever comes to mind. Sometimes his subjects are topical—famous figures or events that made the news. Other times, he’ll experiment with landscapes and techniques. Last month, as he was scrolling through the news on Saturday night, he came across the story that 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed by a Texas police officer.

The story was so familiar, Smith wasn’t sure if he had heard it before—earlier that week, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for fatally shooting Botham Jean in his Dallas apartment. The details of Jefferson’s case—a young woman playing video games with her nephew at her mother’s home, brutally and unexpectedly killed by a police officer who had been called on a non-emergency line because the doors to the home were open—immediately struck Smith. He was angry about the senselessness of Jefferson’s death, but also wary of how the police would ultimately shape the narrative of her killing, spinning their version of events to make Jefferson look culpable. If past incidents of police brutality were any indication, the police would try to make her look “subhuman,” he said.

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He knew he had to draw her. And he knew how he wanted to draw her: on the couch, relishing what would be the final moments of her life, playing video games alongside her 8-year-old nephew. In doing so, Smith created a piece that resonated so widely it became viral—but also serves as an instruction to how we remember and honor victims of state violence.

“I’ve got to recreate this moment of them having a joyful time because there’s so much heartbreak in this story,” Smith, walking through his process, told The Root. “A lot of these stories don’t make national headlines unless they’re very tragic and horrific...and people often times don’t see the joy that was there, or the life that was there.”

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Black people who die in high profile acts of state violence often become a hashtag, a name to rally around—names exalted only through painful, horrifying deaths. Smith wanted to push back against that inevitable flattening: I want my art to show: this is the person who lived.”

The illustration he made that Sunday—Jefferson and her nephew erupting in laughter, controllers in their hands, unaware of anything beyond the orbit of the couch—went viral. As the Dallas Morning News reports, his digital painting even landed on the floor of Congress. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat who represents Fort Worth, Texas, displayed the image on the floor of the U.S. House as he called for law enforcement reform.

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Image: Nikkolas Smith

Smith has had his art go viral before—you’ve likely come across his images of Colin Kaepernick kneeling or Nipsey Hussle, in a white sweatsuit, dapping up neighborhood kids. But those were iconic figures, he notes, whereas in his depiction of Jefferson, people were gravitating to the “everyday things, the everyday life of this person.”

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“A lot of people will say they don’t know exactly how to process these moments because they’re so traumatic and they’re so heavy,” Smith says. “When I post my art, they say ‘OK. That’s what I wanted to say or that’s what I was feeling. But I didn’t know how to express it.’” 

One person reached out to him saying she hadn’t cried about Jefferson’s death until she saw his painting—she hadn’t even realized she needed to.

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The painting was deeply personal for Smith—a Houston native with warm, vivid memories of helping to look after his nieces and nephews (his family still lives in Texas).

“At one point, we were all living in the same place,” Smith says. While painting the Jefferson piece, Smith found himself reliving the moments he would wake up, make his way over to his nieces and nephews and ask if they wanted to hang out or play some games. Paintings like the one of Jefferson help him process some of his feelings—though sometimes, he feels so heavy about a piece of art he has to cry or stop, like when he paid tribute to Philando Castile and Michael Brown, both of whom died at the hands of police officers. His feelings around Brown in particular became the subject of an animatic piece (stitched from dozens of digital paintings) called “Finding Ferguson,” a speculative reality that imagines what could have happened if Darren Wilson had responded differently.

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The piece was borne from years of reflection, Smith says—“thinking about, ‘Why couldn’t the officer that was working there have responded differently and just use some restraint or, you know, treated this person with dignity?” It’s worth noting that even in that alternative reality, the best case scenario ends with Brown still being arrested.

Image: Nikkolas Smith
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Smith is unafraid to get deeply political with this work—he tells me he was once blocked and then unblocked by President Donald Trump on Twitter—a practice that started when he attended Hampton University in Virginia. There, he was a political cartoonist for the school newspaper, The Script, where he began broaching a wide variety of news topics. To this day, that sense of alertness about the world keeps him returning to issues like immigration, climate change and suicide prevention to find ways to depict them. When everyone is scrolling so fast through timelines cluttered with competing news articles and personal updates, one of his paintings “can open people’s eyes in just a second or two,” Smith points out.

The economy of a simple image—particularly in a news landscape where there is so much to digest at any given time—presents Smith with an opportunity not just to create the world he wants to see, but impress that image upon his followers. The paintings he’s created every Sunday have become something of a diary—one that chronicles the world we live in, but also imagines how we could live in that world, who we would remember, and how.

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Smith will sit down again in his home this weekend, and like every other Sunday, at the forefront of his mind will be a Nina Simone quote: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

“Every week that sticks with me,” says Smith, “I need to hold up a mirror to what’s going on.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?