Elderly people as models in a fashion show are unusual. Even less common is a shoot with elderly Black African models.
Perhaps this explains why Nigerian visual artist Malik Afegbua’s social media posts last month depicting elderly people strutting down a fashion runway while dressed to the nines in swanky, bright garb attracted so much attention from all over the world.
Images from a series titled “The Elders Series” push back against negative stereotypes of the elderly and bring attention to African faces and bodies, which have been marginalised in the fashion industry.
Afegbua, 38, said, “My mom was the inspiration behind (this series).” “My mom and I are very close, but recently she suffered a stroke. I just needed a way to let out my feelings and divert my attention from the thought of her on a respirator. I aimed to visualise her in a serene setting.”
What makes the photos even more remarkable is that the groundbreaking fashion show depicted in them never even happened. The photos look like they were taken at a real event, but they were actually created by AI (AI).
You “keep going to different depths,” he said.
Afegbua, then a novice photographer and artist, was given a Canon camera as a present 12 years ago. According to him, this opened the door for him to become a filmmaker, and since then he has made a number of movies and promotional videos for businesses. Both seasons two and three of Netflix’s “Made By Design” were produced by him, as was a biopic docudrama about Nigerian fashion designer Nike Davies-Okundaye.
Afegbua’s use of artificial intelligence in “The Elders Series” is a continuation of his previous works. He does this by inputting text into the AI platform Midjourney, which then produces an image. According to Afegbua, he uses various search terms until he finds an image he likes; then, he edits it in Photoshop, trying various approaches until he gets the desired result.
To get what you want from artificial intelligence, “you put in a text prompt, it gives you something random—you keep going to different depths until you find what you want,” he explained.
Racism and sexism in artificial intelligence are hot-button issues. It has been found that facial recognition technology is not as reliable for people with Black skin, and that AI systems designed to detect skin cancer have been trained primarily on White skin. It has also been pointed out that AI art platforms may generate artworks that reflect the cultural biases of images sourced from the internet.
Prior to his mother’s stroke, Afegbua had only dabbled in working with images of Black people on AI platforms, and he described the results as “mangled up and not very good.”
The depictions of African-Americans in popular culture struck him as distinct from those of Black Africans. Afegbua defended the stereotype, saying, “When you put ‘African,’ they look less dapper and in a less nice environment.”
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According to him, he was able to train the AI and improve the images it produced of Black people through repeated searches using variations of his text prompts. Since his work is now part of the AI’s database, “anyone can go into the AI and put ‘a Black man in a fashion show,'” he said. “Because of what I’ve done, the database now contains that information.”
People are always the driving force.
Afegbua thinks AI has the potential to be a useful tool for the arts, particularly cinema and television. “It’s here to stay… it’s going to evolve and get better,” he said. But he insists that the part played by human creators is still crucial. “Despite popular belief, AI is not the end all. It lacks the ability to reason independently and relies on a human being to initiate action “Moreover, he said.
One of his other AI projects was the construction of a virtual African utopia called Ngochola, whose citizens were all heroic and beautiful. As Afegbua puts it, he wanted the city to reflect “the power that technology would play in that society” if colonialism hadn’t intervened. But “The Elders Series” is where he really made a name for himself.
Afegbua claims that since he posted the photos online, he has been offered roles in Hollywood films and invited to exhibit his work in galleries in the United States, France, and Brazil. The praise he’s received for elevating the status of the elderly is, if anything, more satisfying.
He added that the World Health Organization had gotten in touch to tell him that his work was “a major, positive contributor in the global effort by the WHO/Decade UN’s of Healthy Aging in combating ageism.”
I didn’t expect it to have such a widespread impact,” Afegbua said. I’m glad that people are finally talking about it.