22 March 2018

Africa: Shudu - the World's First Digital Supermodel Is Ebony Perfection

Photo: Shudu/Instagram
Shudu.

Instagram supermodel Shudu was an instant sensation, lauded as one of the most beautiful models on the Internet - until the world discovered that she was man-made. This ebony-skinned supermodel is in fact the creation of photographer Cameron James-Wilson.

Fashion and technology have been coming ever closer together as designers strive to create fresh concepts that a digital world can appreciate. In early 2108, Dolce & Gabbana sent drones down the runway to model handbags and virtual influencer Lil Miquela talked her audience through the latest GIF sets from Prada in Milan. So, while augmented reality and digital adaption are not new in fashion, they are still new enough to cause difficulty when it comes to distinguishing the real from the faked.

The first few images posted to Shudu's Instagram account, @shudu.gram, received a lot of attention. Followers could not get enough of her delicate features and flawless skin. In a society hungry for alternative representation, as in the case of Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira, she was perfection personified.

Soon the clamour that uncovered the truth began. So convincingly real was Cameron's 3D modelling that photographers and agencies alike could not rush any faster to book the model. Matters escalated when Rihanna's beauty brand Fenty reposted an image of Shudu wearing their lipstick. The image (created without Fenty's involvement and at the suggestion of Cameron's younger sister) exceeded the average amount of Instagram likes and engagement almost four-fold, with some 222 000 likes, compared to an average of around 50 000. Cameron then began responding to private messages, saying that Shudu was "an art project".

Shudu's creator talked to Highsnobiety about the amount of work that went into the pictures. Cameron estimates that a single image takes about three full days of work, not including the weeks of planning.

"I was inspired by quite a few people," says Cameron of Shudu's conception, "but the main inspiration is a sort of South African Princess Barbie. Obviously, many real women served as inspiration for her -- Lupita, Duckie Thot and Nykhor Paul -- even going back to Alek Wek, who was a massive influence on how I saw beauty when I was growing up."

According to Wikipedia, in the study of aesthetics, there is a concept known as the "uncanny valley". This describes the eerie feeling that arises when objects look human (mannequins, dolls, Sophia the Robot, etc.) but not quite. Shudu is notable because she is "post uncanny valley", appearing so human that most people, even on close inspection, would not suspect that she is CGI.

Cameron says his admission has met with a mixed response. "The comments that have been most critical of what I'm doing have been from white women, which was kind of unexpected. I had dark-skinned girls and women message me to say that they absolutely love my art," says Cameron. "This is why I like to do interviews: to show people what's behind it. I am not taking away from anyone but trying to add to the standard of beauty that's changing to one that is much more inclusive."

As for the technical aspects of the creation, Cameron points out that he found it challenging to create Shudu because of a lack of software. "As in many industries, the 3D world is sorely lacking ethnic diversity, and black characters and assets are particularly rare," he says. "There's a push to shift this, and with the advancement of tech and 3D industries, we can expect a change. But this is one thing that Shudu is contributing to in her own way. This is not something I intended from the start, but now I'm very interested in helping to create the resources needed for game developers and 3D designers to make more racially diverse characters."

With projects such as these, and the revelations that come with them, the pool of representation continues to grow and the gaps in equal imaging continue to lessen.

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