Revisionist Art & Recontextualizing Iconography Using AI

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readMar 23, 2023
Nettrice Gaskins, “Black Girl With a (Black) Pearl Earring,” 2023. Created using Midjourney.

As an art student I was exposed to artworks that used popular iconography to make socio-political statements. For example, Renee Cox, whose photographs — frequently self-portraits — explores issues related to the representation and exploitation of Black bodies while seeking to create new positive imagery. Kehinde Wiley’s tapestry-sized paintings reexamine representational cannons and widely accepted social stereotypes of Black Americans.

Renee Cox, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben,” 1998.
Left: Jacques-Louis David, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Bonaparte franchissant le Grand Saint-Bernard),” 1801; Right: Kehinde Wiley, “Napoleon Leading The Army over the Alps,” 2005.

Wiley’s paintings are apparently influenced by the Old Masters, and can be perceived as hybrids due to their stylistic and representational heterogeneity; for instance, the hip hop aesthetic mixed with Islamic architecture and the French Rococo. — Widewalls

Cox’s “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben,” shown above, addresses racist mechanisms in corporate advertising, where brand mascots Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben persisted until they were finally discontinued in 2020. Sanford Biggers’ “Oracle” (see below), is part of the artist’s “Chimera” sculpture series, which merges African masks and European figures. The seated body is inspired by the ancient Temple of Zeus, while the head is based on masks and other sculptures from various African cultures, including Luba art and the Maasai religion.

Sanford Biggers, “Oracle,” at Rockefeller Center in 2021.

When Midjourney v.5 was released I felt compelled to see what would happen if I inserted “black” next to well-known, or iconographic art titles such as “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” an oil painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer. I posted the result on the Midjourney Official Facebook page and some followers expressed outrage. On Instagram, thousands of people liked the image and commented on it.

My image with some of the IG comments.

“Girl With A Pearl Earring” is an iconic artwork that is part of a representational cannon that has historically left people like me out. Of course this is something I noticed during my undergraduate and graduate studies. The Vermeer painting is also referenced by researcher Theodore Kim (2021) who identified racial bias embedded in CGI software that emphasizes the hegemonic visual features of Europeans and East Asians. In a way, the AI version mitigates this bias.

Nettrice Gaskins, “Black Mona Lisa,” 2023. Created using Midjourney and Photoshop.

For the “Black Mona Lisa” I used a neural filter in Photoshop to deepen the skin tones but it was generated the same way (see title). Later, I added words like ‘cyborg” to the prompt for different but interesting results. Today, I decided to tackle “American Gothic” by Grant Wood who was famous for his unique contribution to Regionalism (c.1925–45) — the American reaction to the country’s dependence on European modern art which flourished during the interwar period. Wood intended the painting to convey a positive image of rural American values, offering a vision of reassurance at the beginning of the Great Depression.

Nettrice Gaskins, “Black American Gothic,” 2023. Created using Midjourney.

During the Great Depression, almost all Black Americans got laid off their jobs and their unemployment rate was four times as much as their white counterparts. The jobs they did have were usually all farmers or worked for farmers they also worked at windmills and as servants and in foundries and some were also teachers. As such, the AI-generated image, while having many visual attributes as the original Wood painting, tells a much different story when you consider the time they were in.

By the time I shared “Black American Gothic” on social media, the Midjourney FB group was gaining a better understanding of my reasoning for using AI to revisit and recontextualize iconic artworks.

--

--

Nettrice Gaskins

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