Artificial Intelligence Art from Africa and Black Communities Worldwide

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Ever since the development of DeepDream in 2015 with its brightly coloured hallucinatory aesthetic, machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing techniques have been gaining popularity amongst artists as tools and artificial intelligence as subject matter. Voices from Africa and Black communities worldwide are employing AI tools to create new interpretations of traditional artifacts, share family histories and interrogate the data labelling, collection and AI training processes.

Rich cultural traditions of the African nations provide a fertile ground for experimentation with machine learning techniques such as GANs, which are able to produce high-quality images based on a dataset. In 2018, Victor Dibia generated images of African masks from a dataset of 9,300 historic designs from across the continent. More recently, the French collective Obvious, who famously sold their GAN-generated portrait for $432,500 at Christie’s in 2018, also worked with masks for their Facets of AGI collection, featuring 22 AI-designed masks made in Ghana, each depicting a facet of intelligence. Ceremonial bronze heads were the subject of Minne Atairu’s project Igùn, a latent space interpolation that imagines artworks that could have been created in the Benin Kingdom if the British invasion had not happened. 

Techniques such as DeepDream and style transfer have enabled artists to interpret their subject matter with a new aesthetic. Nettrice Gaskins reimagined Featured Futurists in the style that corresponds to each figure, while Jeremiah Ikongio made portraits in the style of the Nigerian modernist Uche Okeke and the Ùlì art tradition. Meanwhile, Yinka Ilori worked with Marco Marchesi to combine his bold artworks with Bombay Sapphire brand imagery, presenting new works with a kaleidoscopic pattern at Frieze in 2019.

Artists from Africa and the diaspora make use of natural language processing tools to share multigenerational stories, reimagine traditional literature and explore representations of Blackness. Stephanie Dinkins’ Not The Only One is a memoir of a Black family as told by an AI trained on oral histories from three generations of women from one family. Melisa Allela’s Leso Stories project shares traditional African oral literature as immersive experiences such as the animated adaptation of the Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s narrative poem, Song of Lawino. Neural Swamp by Martine Syms investigates representations of Blackness in visual culture through an immersive multichannel installation in which two African American actresses read a script that is AI-generated in real time, their voices imitated by the algorithm.

In addition to using the technology for artwork creation, artificial intelligence serves as a subject matter for artists, who investigate relationships between local cultures and AI as well as visualising possible AI entities. As part of its Scientist in Residence Program at GLUON, researchers Tarek Besold and Raoul Frese travelled to filmmaker’s Manthia Diawara’s studio in Yenne village, Senegal to reflect on how Senegalese people view technology and AI, resulting in the documentary Behind the Robot Eyes. Meanwhile, physical depictions of AI rooted in African and Black perspectives include Daniela Ribeiro’s cyborg figures partly constructed from recycled technological waste and Rashaad Newsome’s Being, a humanoid AI devoid of race or gender who engages with and teaches humans. Questions of identity are raised in Kumbirai Makumbe’s Evo’s Turn, where the bodiless AI voice clone Evo grapples with its own Blackness in a way that draws parallels with AIs considering their own “human-ness”. In Josèfa Ntjam’s film Mélas de Saturne, a fictional character in a virtual space between the oceans’ abyss and darknet begins a search for their algorithmic origins, hoped to be found among the Meta population in North-East Cameroon. 

Despite the technological advancements over the years, applications of AI still leave a lot to be desired in terms of fairness, equality and justice. Mimi Onuoha’s Library of Missing Datasets highlight communities excluded from data collection and data labelling in an otherwise data-saturated culture, while Joy Buolamwini’s Algorithmic Justice League illuminates the technology’s social implications. This year, Mozilla’s Creative Media Awards funded eight projects by Black artists interrogating AI technologies such as computer vision, natural language processing and voice recognition. The awardees include an Afrofuturist 3D animated short film on AI and bias by Anatola Araba; a virtual celebration of Carnival featuring AI-generated dancing sculptures by Vernelle A. A Noel and an immersive journalism and Afrofuturism work imagining diverse futures for bias and discrimination in technology by Tracey Bowen.

Artists from Africa and Black communities globally treat AI as an aesthetic, tool, entity and technology, highlighting its faults and limitations, reimagining African cultural heritage and sharing futurist visions as well as deeply personal narratives. Alongside this artistic activity, the continued investment in the continent, community-led educational projects as well as the democratisation of the art market through NFTs mean that the future for artists working with machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision presents plenty of opportunities to make their mark in global AI art.

By Luba Elliott

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