Afro-Surrealism, GenAI & “The Book of Clarence”

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readJan 13, 2024
Poster art for Jeymes Samuel’s “The Book of Clarence.”

[Please Note: Light spoilers ahead.]

In Henry Dumas’ 1974 book Ark Of Bones and Other Stories, Amiri Baraka describes as Dumas’ “skill at creating an entirely different world organically connected to this one … the Black aesthetic in its actual contemporary and lived life.” Baraka also coined the term that encapsulated this skill as ‘Afro-Surreal Expressionism’, or as D. Scott Miller calls it: Afro-Surrealism.

An Afro-Surreal aesthetic addresses … lost legacies and reclaims [histories and places], from Kehinde Wiley painting the invisible men (and their invisible motives) … to Yinka Shonibare beheading 17th (and 21st) century sexual tourists of Europe… to Nick Cave’s soundsuits…

Jeymes Samuel addresses big biblical epic films such as “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in his 2024 film “The Book of Clarence,” an arguably Afro-Surrealist take on the weeks leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, featuring an fictional character named Clarence. I reference Afro-Surrealism here but there are a one or two scenes that also bring to mind Afrofuturism but that is a discussion for another day.

Dr. Fahamu Pecou. “The People Could Fly.”

In a previous post I explored Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” where the main character learns how to “ride” the air by surrendering to it, by letting it take control of him. Samuel presents us with a similar scenario in “The Book of Clarence” when the titular character visits a hookah bar. The smoking triggers a song titled “I Want You Forever” that features Samuel, D’Angelo, and Jay Z (who also produced the film).

From my 2022 “Shalimar” series using Midjourney v2

Inspired by the film and soundtrack I came up with prompts to describe what I was feeling. In my slide “Anatomy of a Prompt” I came up with a subject (“Black messiah”), combined different art styles (ex. “Afro-Surrealism”), a composition (“swirling cosmos”) and some booster words. The results captured my experience.

From my Generative AI Tutorial slide deck
First attempt using Midjourney v6 + Photoshop
Second attempt using Midjourney v6 + Photoshop

We never hear from the people who were around him and how they looked up to a messiah. I wanted to emulate that and situate a story with Black skin in a story we’re not typically seen in. — Actor Keith Stanfield

Afro-Surreal presupposes that beyond this visible world, there is an invisible world striving to manifest, and it is our job to uncover it. — D. Scot Miller

In many ways, the process of creating images generated using prompts bridges the inner-outer subjective-objective processes of Afro-Surrealism and the invisible workings of latent space, which is an abstract, lower-dimensional representation of high-dimensional data, often used in deep learning (generative AI) to simplify complex data structures and reveal hidden patterns. The prompts I use unlock different worlds, or possibilities. The GenAI process helps me visualize complex ideas.

Lower left section of the first attempt using Midjourney v6
Top right section of the first attempt using Midjourney v6

Afro-Surrealists use excess as the only legitimate means of subversion, and hybridization as a form of disobedience. — D. Scot Miller

For me, “excess” is Big Data, which includes the generative AI or large language models that are pre-trained on vast amounts of data. The compositing of GenAI images calls forth the collages of Romare Bearden and others who make use of existing “data” (photos and text) to bring the world around us into unexpected, transformative combinations on canvas.

The act of splicing together disparate images and fragments of text mirrored their belief that meaning was generated by the subconscious. But collage as a technique has been more influential than Surrealism on the way we imagine (or reimagine) the world. — Samuel Reilly

Instead of canvas the images I create using GenAI come from latent space to computer screens and sometimes to printed works. Like Samuel’s “The Book of Clarence”, a filmic kind of collage, GenAI creates entirely different worlds that are connected to the one we live in, which is Afro-Surrealistic.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.