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Review: Paint Me Black

A review of Paint Me Black, a project exploring African fractals, directed by Augustine Farinola

Published onApr 29, 2024
Review: Paint Me Black

Paint Me Black Project

Project Director
Augustine Farinola, University of Birmingham

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Frank Onuh, University of Lethbridge

Project Overview

Augustine Farinola

Paint Me Black: The Aesthetics and Rationality of African Fractals documents and classifies images that attest to the artistic and mathematical heritage of Black people.1 It further situates visual data on African fractals within theoretical frameworks that showcase their aesthetics and rationality. The historical experiences of Black people highlight the importance of reaffirming our pride and preventing the recurrence of dehumanizing experiences, sociological misinterpretations, and ideological misrepresentations of Black cultures, ontologies, and knowledge systems. Black people around the world have been subjected to abuse, ridicule, and negativity, from slavery to colonialism to stereotyping to cultural misrepresentation to racism and discrimination. Our contemporary digital age provides an opportunity for Black people to define ourselves by using social media platforms to share images and other resources that counter negative representations and celebrate the richness of our shared heritage, reclaiming the truth of our rich traditions, empires, and civilizations. Paint Me Black contributes to these efforts. 

Drawing on the works of the prominent Mozambican mathematician Paulus Gerdes,2 US professor of information technology Ron Eglash3, and US African mathematics professor Claudia Zaslavsky,4 the project posits that African designs embody geometrical patterns, calculations, and theories and demonstrate the fusion of African knowledge systems (particularly mathematics) and information technology. As a digital humanities project, Paint Me Black explores the potential of enhancing these designs and fractals as part of Black heritage.

We mined images from various social media platforms using a Python algorithm that interacts with their application programming interfaces (APIs). By using “black people” as the search criterion, we downloaded over 320,000 pictures and sorted them into categories of African arts and artifacts that embody geometrical patterns known as “fractals.” The extracted images of African hairstyles, sculptures, beads, and clothing patterns in Paint Me Black show a mastery of fractal geometry and its application for creating aesthetically pleasing and harmonious patterns. For instance, some hairstyles incorporate intricate braiding patterns that display self-similarity and repetition. Some sculptures exhibit fractal patterns in the form of geometric shapes, self-similar motifs, and repeating patterns, while textiles demonstrate an application of fractal patterns for creating balanced and harmonious designs. These images have been posted on social media platforms with hashtags like #blackpeople or #black to explore questions about blackness, regain consciousness of our ancestral greatness, and project desired representation. Paint Me Black focuses on how they exemplify the richness of ideas and intellectual complexity of ancestors of people who want to be identified as “Black” based on their African ancestry. 

The current website was developed using WordPress, but we are currently upgrading to React, a popular JavaScript library for building user interfaces. We chose React for its ability to create reusable components, which simplifies the development process and allows for easy updates in the future. In addition, we are using JavaScript, HTML, and CSS to structure the content, apply styling, and manage the interactive elements of the website. With these technologies, we aim to create a visually appealing and responsive platform that effectively presents the curated images and communicates our findings to a wide audience.

Paint Me Black intends to reach a diverse audience fascinated by African fractals and Black heritage. Offering valuable insights to researchers, artists, educators, students, and the public, the project highlights the beauty, mathematical basis, and creative possibilities of African fractals. The website acts as an engaging platform for learning and conversations about Black heritage, cultural portrayal, and the influence of social media on shaping perceptions. It encourages a deeper understanding and appreciation of the rich history and varied cultural fabric of Black communities.

Project Review

Frank Onuh

In the flourishing field of digital humanities, Paint Me Black could be considered a seminal work for its ingenious integration of mathematical theory, visual aesthetics, and cultural heritage. Augustine Farinola offers a compelling counter-narrative to the historical misrepresentations and sociological misconceptions that have plagued Black peoples. Farinola argues that the fractal patterns found in various forms of African art are not merely aesthetic choices but are deeply rooted in the intellectual and cultural heritage of Black communities. The project posits that these fractal patterns serve as a form of intellectual property and a mathematical language that has been passed down through generations. This claim challenges the often reductionist views that relegate African art to the realm of the “exotic,” devoid of intellectual rigor. Instead, it elevates these art forms to the status of cultural texts that encode complex mathematical and philosophical ideas.

The project showcases how fractal geometry manifests in various forms of African art, from intricate braiding patterns to complex textile designs. They are not merely ornamental but demonstrate a mastery of fractal geometry, an advanced mathematical concept that has found applications in various scientific fields today. These visual data are mathematical theorems in disguise. These theorems are elucidated by Paint Me Black through a nuanced understanding of how they fit within the theoretical frameworks of African knowledge systems.

Paint Me Black situates itself at the intersection of digital humanities, African studies, and mathematical theory, contributing to a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship. It resonates with works like African Fractals by Ron Eglash (1999) and Claudia Zaslavsky’ Africa Counts (1999), which explore the mathematical principles inherent in African cultures. However, it goes a step further by leveraging digital technologies to curate and analyze visual data, thus aligning itself with digital humanities practices that employ computational methods for cultural analysis. By situating the project within an interdisciplinary framework, Farinola not only provides academic legitimacy to the art forms under study but also bridges the often-siloed disciplines of the humanities and the sciences. Besides its potential for adaptation and pedagogical values to researchers, educators, and students, the project also serves as a vehicle for epistemic justice that hopes to restore the intellectual contributions of Black communities in areas traditionally dominated by Western academia. 

The in-progress transition of the project to the React JavaScript library is commendable. However, it raises questions about data preservation and long-term accessibility which is a major issue in digital humanities projects. React, like many modern web technologies, relies on dynamic content rendering, which can pose challenges for web archiving tools, which are better suited for capturing static web pages. To address the issue of long-term data preservation and accessibility, the project could consider implementing a parallel static version of the website alongside the dynamic React version. 

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