Africans can now match their faces with famous artworks; Google calls it ‘Art Selfie’

Google’s Arts & Culture app has been around for a while, but it took an art selfie feature to generate a bit of viral interest in the app. The app raced to the number one spot in the US Apple app store in January after its new feature that lets users match their selfies with famous artworks went viral.

Now, the Art Selfie, the museum selfie match feature in Google’s Arts & Culture app, is now available globally, including South Africa’s latest update. The Art Selfie app is developed by Google and is based on machine learning. When you take a selfie, the image is compared with faces in the pieces of art that Google gathered from 1200 museum partners across 70 countries, allowing users to find their art lookalike from Google’s wealth of cached historical and contemporary artwork.

All that is needed is to download the app from Android/iOS stores. Once downloaded, a pop-up on the home screen beckons to ‘get started’. The app uses computer-vision technology to examine what is similar about the user’s face to the thousands of pieces of art that are shared with Google by museums and other institutions. Formerly known as the Google Art Project and launched in February 2011, the new initiative from the tech giant aims to make great art more accessible in this digital age, using some of the technology tools that it has created, according to Inverse.

However, its popularity has not been without complaints about the app not offering any matches, or being facially matched with an artwork of a different gender or age.

Due to the Eurocentrism of art history, users in African countries may not find doppelgängers like those of European descent. As the writer Catherine Shu noticed in TechCrunch, nonwhite users were being confronted with “stereotypical tropes that white artists often resorted to when depicting people of color: slaves, servants or, in the case of many women, sexualized novelties.”

In response, Google cast the blame not on its facial-analysis algorithm but on art history. The app, the company told Shu, was “limited by the images we have on our platform. Historical artworks often don’t reflect the diversity of the world. We are working hard to bring more diverse artworks online.”

Michelle Luo, Product Manager, Google Arts & Culture, says, “You can be matched with tens of thousands of portraits – sometimes with surprising results like the heart-warming example of a woman in St Louis, US whose selfie was matched with a portrait of her great-grandmother, Emma.”

The app’s other features — such as virtual art tours, info about nearby museums and cultural events, and an art recognizer feature that uses computer vision so you can point your phone at an artwork and be served tidbits of info about it, are also available to explore.

“With Google Arts & Culture you can visit top exhibits, zoom in on artworks in mind-blowing detail and browse thousands of stories, photos, videos, and manuscripts. Be your own curator by finding your favorites, creating your own collections and sharing them with friends,” Google writes in the app’s description.

The project was launched in collaboration with 17 international museums, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Uffizi in Florence.