Word Play: Artist Shomari Smith Launches a New Exhibit of Portraits in Oakland

By Pati Navalta Poblete | April 1, 2020 | Feature Features

Shomari Smith, whose work hangs in the Chase Center, launches a new exhibit of portraits in Oakland.

ShomariSmithheadshot1.jpgOakland-based artist Shomari Smith

Shomari Smith was working at his former gallery space in Oakland when a customer suggested he submit his portraits as part of a call for entry sent out by Chase Center. The Oakland-based artist had only responded to a call for entry once before, and with the popularity of the Warriors, the hype around the new arena and competition from thousands of talented Bay Area artists, Smith never expected to hear back.

But he did. Today, his “Hamptons Five” portraits hang on the walls of the arena as part of Chase Center’s art collection—and his new exhibit this month features a series of portraits of people with Bay Area connections who have made an impact in their respective fields. Visitors will get a close-up view of what makes Smith’s work unique: words.

“The concept for putting words into my art grew from many influences I had as a young artist,” he says. “As a teenager I discovered the work of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Later I studied under Raymond Saunders at the California College of Arts. Although each of these artists had very different working styles from the other, they all used words as a design element.”

Look closely at one of Smith’s portraits, and you’ll begin to see the words that describe the subject, not in the white spaces that surround the art but as part of the actual portrait. Etched along each curve of a cheek and arch of a brow are words or phrases that have significance in the subject’s life, adding a whole other dimension to the work.

“I definitely establish a better connection with the people I paint through the word elements in my pieces,” he says. “The words describe important components to each individual, and they hold power and energy. I really want my work to harness that energy as much as possible.”

The exhibit will serve as an homage of sorts to the Bay Area and the creativity of its people.

“These portraits will feature people in politics, music, activism, sports and entertainment,” Smith says. “I love the Bay, and this exhibit will be my thank-you to the visionaries, the creatives, the hard workers and revolutionaries who have inspired me to follow my own dreams.”

In addition to the exhibit, Smith and his wife, Viviana Rodriguez-Smith, showcase his portraits along with works from other local artists in their Old Oakland gallery, E14 Gallery, a space that was designed to give local artists an opportunity to display their work and sell their products. 461 Ninth St., Oakland, e14gallery.com

(Ed. note: The gallery is temporarily closed and the opening exhibit, which was originally slated to open this month, has been postponed due to the pandemic.)

2Pac03-0001.jpgOakland-based artist Shomari Smith incorporates words describing his subjects into their portraits, as in the portrait of Tupac Shakur above


Smith's portrait of Jerry Garcia

AngelaDavis02-0001.jpgSmith's portrait of Angela Davis

santana-0001.jpgCarlos Santana, by Shomari Smith

Hueylines-0001.jpgHuey Newton, by Shomari Smith


Photography by: Shomari Smith photo by Nyeres Britt; Artwork photos courtesy of Shomari Smith