Trilogy of Difference: Black Art, Femininity & Generative AI

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readFeb 11, 2024
DuBois + Midjourney v5

…but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells recognition they will not be rated as human. And when through art they compell recognition then let the world discover if it will that their art is as new as it is old and as old as new. — W.E.B. DuBois

Founded in 1910, The Crisis was the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP. When it premiered, co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the goal of the publication was to “set forth those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people.” You can find over 6oo articles on the Dare You Fight website including “Criteria of Negro Art” from 1926.

Black feminist cyborgs + Midjourney v6

Du Bois’ essay is one thread. Here’s a second one: A thesis from 2020 University of Minnesota PhD candidate Caitlin Gunn that begins with Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” Gunn situates Black feminist cyborgs in the current field of feminist cyborg theory. Gunn references Jasbir Puar who writes about the theoretical discourse about “difference” involving scholars such as bell hooks. Puar also points to Haraway who wrote that she would rather be a cyborg who favors a “technologized figure of techno-human over the reclamation of a racialized, matriarchal past.”

My pencil sketch of bell hooks

Then, I remembered my sketch of bells hooks who shared my birthday (September 25) and theorized that social classifications (e.g., race, gender, sexual identity, class, etc.) are interconnected. Ignoring this intersection creates oppression towards women and changes the experience of living as women in society. This led me to the final thread: deep learning aka generative artificial intelligence. As with previous waves of technology, the race and gender biases in generative AI are caused by the exclusion of black/brown people and women at every stage of the AI life. An alternative to this is designing an AI with inclusion to create new opportunities and a proactive, innovative correction of inequities.

I wove together the Du Bois notion of “negro” art/humanity with the ideas of femininity as difference and the interrogation of GenAI through imaging. I uploaded my bell hooks sketch to be used as a prompt in Midjourney v6, along with the text “cyborg bell hooks,” and I revised the prompt and varied the output until the generator produced images I liked such as these:

My sketch + ‘cyborg bell hooks’ in Midjourney v6

The braids from the pencil sketch became wires, cables, and connectors. Devices embedded in the skin (ex. on the forehead or neck) are actuators that helps the ‘cyborg hooks’ characters achieve physical movements by converting energy into mechanical forces. Cyborg hooks is em-powered. These additions are, of course, symbolic of the notion of a cyborg or cyborg feminist. Midjourney was guided by my sketch and the signification of the cyborg with the feminist (bell hooks).

We have such spectacular progress in terms of technological growth. And there’s a lot of really interesting work being done on social theory and ethics around AI. But for either of these fields to make a positive difference in the world, they need to talk to each other. — Carla Fehr via Wendy Philpott

Variation of my sketch + ‘cyborg bell hooks’ in Midjourney v6

Social theory — power relations, social structures, and social norms — and ethics or ‘what people ought to do’ is seldom considered when it comes to race and gender in emerging technologies such as generative AI that has become a reality in so many ways, including in art. Here, I’m not talking about bias or stereotypes but a reimagining of notions of difference through the prompting and picturing of black feminist cyborgs… using generative AI tools that I have on hand at the moment.

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Nettrice Gaskins

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