How Malik Afegbua is reimagining African storytelling with AI-generated art

Dennis Da-ala Mirilla
How Malik Afegbua is reimagining African storytelling with AI-generated art

If you go on any of the art-generating AI engines, Disco Diffusion, Stable Diffusion, MidJourney etc., and insert similar prompts, the odds are that you won’t get the same result as the ace film director and editor Malik Afegbua.

This is because his process is more judicious and tedious than the average artificial intelligence user’s. Malik Afegbua’s projects are already redefining the African narrative, thanks to his skills in using Artificial intelligence tools and his creativity as an artist.

How does it work?

First, he takes what the AI offers, dumps it on Photoshop, and makes some variations. Then he throws that back to the AI. And then he makes more variations and then even more. His communication with the AI continues until he gets his desired image.

In the past few months, he has risen to critical acclaim for the hyper-realistic result he generates from AI, so much so that the BBC could only best describe Malik Afegbua as an “AI artist.”

“I am a storyteller,” he said in an exclusive interview with Technext. “The backbone for everything I do is storytelling.”

Even though the collection that propelled him into the mainstream–the Elder Series: Fashion Show For Seniors– was released last year, he said that his journey with AI had been six years in the making.

As CEO of the film studio Slick City, his day-to-day activities include looking for new ways to tell stories. That led him to AI.

“I always do research to find innovative ways,” he said. “6 years ago, I started working with virtual reality. I was looking for more innovative ways to tell stories and that led me to artificial intelligence two years ago. I studied how some people were using AI to create generative artwork, and installation and I started to do more work around that.”

Now he is adept at how the engines work, churning out tons of AI-generated images that continue to leave the internet agog. Using his experience as a filmmaker, he has been able to use AI to create different images.

“When you put in these prompts, it gives you back random things. But I didn’t want that to happen. So I first thought about what I wanted to do. I thought about the world, and the kind of characters.

What those characters are doing. What are they wearing? What’s the interruption? What kind of composition will we have in that type of setting. What’s the lighting? Because I have a filmmaking background, so I was always putting that into everything I do” Malik Afegbua explained.

What the collections are about

With his viral collection, Fashion Show For Seniors, from his Elder Series project, Malik Afegbua said the idea behind it was to challenge the perception of the elderly in society and push back on the narrative of what is acceptable for older people. To achieve this, he put them on the runway.

“The Elders Series is putting people in situations where you will normally not see them,” he said.

“There is a perception that we have about the elderly in society and that it’s marginalised. What I wanted to do is shine a light that these people actually still exist. And see them in a fashion show, at the beach, doing all of that.”

Malik Afegbua

Malik Afegbua’s other collection, Ngochola, draws inspiration from the Marvel Studios flick Black Panther’s Wakanda soldiers. He tells the story of a fictional 250 thousand-year-old civilisation of people of African descent, advanced and intelligent, that has, over the years, learnt to communicate with machines.

“Myself and my wife, we write films and those films that we write are very ambitious, in terms of how to produce them. We need massive studios. I needed a way to reimagine some of these ideas. That’s where that came from,” he said of the inspiration behind the Ngochola collection.

The collection is part of a global movement that has held the frontline in a battle of ideas to challenge the stereotypes about Africa in an age where black people in Africa and abroad are beginning to join forces.

The goal with Ngochola is to bring the collection to life as a movie. “So if you’re thinking Hollywood and the kind of set they build, and the kind of costume they have, that’s what you should think about when it comes to Ngochola,” he conveyed.

Already, his work has garnered the attention of some Hollywood players. The costume designer for Black Panther films, Ruth Carter, already signed on, calling his work “so dope.”

While he agrees that it felt good, Malik Afegbua says that he isn’t in the business of seeking external validation.

Read also: How Grammy-winning producer, LeriQ is using NFTs to show “the indestructible spirit” of Africa

“If I were looking for validation, it would have been,” he said in response to a question about Carter’s comment validating his work.

“I’ve been in the industry for so long that I understand that validation doesn’t mean anything. When you’re a creative person, your creative work is your work regardless of who validate it or not,” .

Malik Afegbua

“It’s about me understanding that this can touch people in the right way. You can pass message in the right way. That’s why I said storytelling is the backbone for everything I do.”

The problems that have dominated production in Nollywood could remain a stumbling block in his way. Over the years, the film industry in Nigeria has gotten better. But film critics have raised concerns about a lack of stories that resonate with the lived experiences of Nigerians and a tsunami of archetypal one-dimensional characters. Even though Nollywood has now been around since the ’90s, Malik Afegbua insists that the industry is still relatively young.

Whether you like it or not, it’s still a relatively young industry when you compare to Hollywood,” he said. “And when you think of how far they’ve come from when the first camera was built, they perfected different skills in filmmaking. They’ve innovated different ways of making films over the years. Even created cameras that didn’t exist just to create a film,” he added.

“We (Nollywood) are very young and we are following through with what the world has learnt from Western societies in terms of how to create films and tell stories that resonates with the world,”

Malik Afegbua

However, Malik Afegbua believes that a bigger budget will go a long way to making Nollywood better. “We don’t have the budget these people have for their films. I’ld say we are in a good place and we’re going to get better for sure. We are going to grow into it.”

This begs the question of how he intends to pay for a movie with a large budget in an industry notorious for meagre budgets.

“I’ve been speaking to many people in many different countries, even in Hollywood as well.” he said. “When we write ambitious stories, we are writing stories, not thinking we are Africans or suppressed.

We are writing it for the world, just as black people and that’s how we think. So if it’s going to cost me a hundred million dollars, we’ll do it for a hundred million dollars. We will still get the money because that’s the conversation we are having with people.”

The problem of copyright laws and intellectual property remains tenuous in the artificial intelligence space, partly because it’s a nascent space. For Malik Afegbua, a regulatory framework will lean on ethical practices.

Read also: How Tunji Anjorin is using NFTs to campaign for the return of Benin Bronzes

“What I need you to understand is that, when it comes to AI, it’s a tool. Just like any tool, you can use it ethically and you can use it unethically,”

Malik Afegbua

“It’s how you use it that matters. I can say I want to create a painting that looks like a van Gogh. You can see the similarity there. However, I could create something that doens’t exist you know. I could create a world that is actually all imaginary. Right now people are still trying to understand the ethics, when it comes to copyright. But there’s a player for it, if you’re using it the right way.”

He says that originality should be applied by players in the space looking to produce ethical work.

“There is nothing like that fashion show anywhere in the world, anywhere online, so I literarily had to find ways to make those references myself,” Malik Afegbua explained. “I didn’t use the Wakanda pictures. I used the idea to build off of that. I could have said let me take their pictures and create Wakanda-like things. It’s going to show me stuff that looks like that.”

What’s next for Malik Afegbua

Currently, he is working on more AI products, trying to roll out new collections under the Elder Series and planning exhibitions across the world.

“I have three projects coming out this year. Two documentaries and one tv show. When it comes to AI, I have exhibitions that we are going to be doing around the world. Hopefully bring the fashion show to life too. I have an NFT show in Brazil. America, Paris as well.”

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