The Black Music Month Portraits

June is Black Music Appreciation Month, which celebrates Black musical influences that comprise an essential part of a treasured cultural heritage. The celebration was founded by Kenny Gamble (of the music production duo Gamble & Huff) and Dyana Williams. Williams said,

Gamble came up with the idea. He had gone to Nashville and saw what the Country Music Association was doing to brand their genre, and a city. They took a whole city, they took Nashville, it’s “music city”, as part of the marketing tourism branding for that region in Nashville. Gamble came back to Philadelphia and said, we need to establish a Black Music Association. That was in 1978… — The Philadelphia Tribune

Black music has been such an important part of my life. As a kid, I used to sit and listen to my parents’ records from artists such as Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Parliament/Funkadelic, James Brown, B.B. King, and more. Many of the portraits I’ve created using Deep Dream Generator or DDG are of Black artists and musicians such as this one of Sam Cooke:

In addition to DDG, I use Adobe Photoshop and, for the first time, I experimented with a tool called DeOlfdify that uses an algorithm to train a machine to identify and process 14 million images to understand how objects in the world are colored. It applies this knowledge to old black-and-white films using a generative adversarial network or GAN, a kind of deep (machine) learning AI that generates images and other media based on an underlying distribution of data.

I created custom styles for each of the images, referencing 17th and 18th century tapestries and still life paintings. I repurposed some of the elements of religious paintings from those time periods, such as gold leaf that was very popular as gilding material for decorating art. My Gilded series showcases several portraits, including one of the late writer/musician Greg Tate that is now on view as an outdoor mural in Brooklyn (via MoCADA).

The June celebration really inspired me to push forward with my developing process that includes AI as well as image editing/compositing. However, I won’t stop creating portraits of my favorite artists/musicians. Emerging AI technology has the potential to replicate and enhance processes used by artists when creating portraits. AI-driven software is now helping artists (including me) refine facial details, colorize, or enhance images.

The use of gold (specularity or shine) in my custom image styles counters historical biases and harms in imaging technology (photos, films, CGI). According to Ruha Benjamin, algorithms can “act as narratives” that reaffirm existing inequalities and “operate within powerful systems of meaning that render some things visible, others invisible, and create a vast array of distortions and dangers.” AI robots or “bots” are used to label or tag images with information on specific facial features that is encoded with biases about what is, or what defines beauty. Art can counter these biases.

Implicit bias can move from one system to the next, especially when diverse sources of information and data are not considered at the development phase. It is my hope that artists grow as the technology grows, as humans and machines learn from one another… in ways that celebrate and elevate or inspire people. I continue to learn new things about AI such as new tools, and new processes that help me create unique images and a new aesthetic.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice Gaskins

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