Houston Artist Henry Art Smith Applies a Social Message to His T-shirts

A message of empowerment.
A message of empowerment. Photo by Henry Art Smith
During slavery, “codes” were used to communicate from plantation to plantation. These codes were songs — now known as hymnals, drawings and story-telling.

Nowadays these messages can be found coded in the form of clothing — images and sayings on T-shirts. For Henry Art Smith and his CHIDI brand, these messages are rooted in African-American culture. And they are all part of a new civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, that has made its way throughout the country, including Houston.

“It’s no longer an attack against us from 'regular citizens' like it was back in the ’60s. We are now not only fighting to gain the respect of police officers, but the respect of white businesses. We have a voice and we deserve to be heard,” says Smith.

Black culture and art have often served as a vehicle to pass down familial history that was lost before, during and after slavery. Some artists have traded their brushes and canvases, and pens and paper, for other mediums, such as clothing. Local artist Smith has managed to do just that.

A native Houstonian and graduate of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and calls his clothing line “not just a brand, but a movement.” CHIDI means “God exists” among the Igbo tribe in Africa, he says.

Smith believes that CHIDI embodies all the faith, spirituality and strength of his ancestors and how they made it through some of the toughest and harshest times.

Henry recalls that, after much prayer, “God gave me the name CHIDI,” which he applied to his painting of an African woman.

“I wouldn’t say that I initially set out to be a part of this new movement," he says. "I had no concept that I would even have a clothing line. The more research I did on our culture, and the more feedback I received, the more I was led to this clothing line.”

Smith attributes much of his success to his strong connection to God and being led by the spirit.

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His first T-shirt was of CHIDI, the African woman who was the subject of his first painting. This shirt gained him a large following, and it was much to his surprise that it was well-received.

He attributes much of his success to his strong connection to God and being led by the spirit, “because as an artist, you are always led by the spirit,” Smith contends.

A close friend caught the attention of R&B singer J. Holliday while wearing the original piece, CHIDI. “Once she got back to me and gave me the feedback she received from J. Holliday about my T-shirt, and after much prayer, I knew that it was time to take my clothing line to the next level,” says Smith.

Since then he has received celebrity support from New York Giants wide receiver coach Adam Henry; actress Doris Margado, who appeared in the movie Logan; and professional boxer Quantis Graves, who wore his CHIDI fashions on ShoBox boxing on Showtime.

Smith says that the CHIDI clothing line is surrounded by the need to uplift black women — the cradle of civilization. “The movement is bigger than me. This clothing line is to push a much bigger message — which comes through my art.”

This same line of thinking regarding the new civil rights movement parallels Houston’s own Beyoncé and her sampling of Malcolm X’s speech she used in her album Lemonade.

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
— Malcolm X May 22, 1962 Los Angeles

Smith’s mother raised five children as a single mother and recently graduated from college at the age of 55. He mentions her being the “first Black Queen he ever knew.”

Her son relies heavily upon social media to sell his art via his online storefront,
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G. Paris Johnson is a freelance writer at the Houston Press, a graduate of Texas Southern University, and a native Houstonian— who enjoys foreign films, friends and family, and venturing around the city finding hidden gems with her husband.