BHM is Every Month: Celebrating Black History Through Portraiture

I was commissioned by Ms. Magazine through Janell Hobson to create a portrait to commemorate the 200th-anniversary birth of Harriet Tubman. This project is part of a multimedia series featured on the magazine’s web site with a special section in their print magazine. One of the inspirations for this work is John Biggers, an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance. Texas-based Biggers created works critical of racial and economic injustice.

I was inspired by his use of pattern (i.e., African textiles, African-American quilts) as well as the subjects. I recall seeing Biggers’ artworks in Ebony Magazine. According to Michael Camp, John Biggers struggled to create works that would honor the legacies of the past and look hopefully toward the future; his work engaged the experiences of African Americans in the US South. My current work uses artificial intelligence or image style transfer to generate patterns and other visual elements. The results are similar but also distinctly new.

I took a different path to create a portrait of Ida B. Wells who was an African-American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement. Wells was one of the founders of the NAACP. I noticed that in many photographs of her that she often looked in the same direction. It’s as if she was looking forward or ahead to a distant future. In my image there are three versions of Wells (as a youth, adult, elder). This arrangement alludes to the passage of time.

In January, the second edition of No Chaser, a men’s lifestyle magazine features a few of my artworks based on John Carlos, an African-American former athlete and activist who displayed the Black Power salute with Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The Smithsonian IG page featured my portrait of civil rights activist Floyd McKissick who in the 1970s dreamed of developing a utopian Soul City for Black empowerment. I used artifacts from his project in the creation of the image.

Also, on display this week is an image from my ongoing “Afro Primavera” series. This “Primavera” (see below) is at Carnegie Hall as part of Black Angel of History: Myth-Science, Metamodernism and the Metaverse. The exhibition is an analysis of visual culture and technology within the genre of Afrofuturism. You can see this work up close in Zankel Hall.

My Instagram page is filled with people who should be honored this month. Most of my images are of people who have inspired or motivated me in some way. In a way, I’m contributing to Black History by sharing these portraits, including McKissick’s that is current on display at the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building, as part of FUTURES.

In a 2017 Schomburg panel with Theaster Gates and Greg Carr we talked about the layering of diaspora archives. I mentioned how I use “computational artifacts” to demonstrate this kind of cultural collage. The use of A.I. has enabled me to explore past techniques while using new tools and creating a new aesthetic. This development is what motivates me to keep going, to keep creating algorithmically generated artworks.



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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

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