February is Black History Month in the US, and in recognition of the underrepresentation of Black figures throughout history — and the importance of visual media in building repositories of knowledge — the Wikimedia Foundation is launching Wiki Unseen. The objective of the project is to improve visual representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) individuals by commissioning artists to create portraits of those who don’t currently have their likenesses featured on their Wikipedia pages.
In the course of researching figures historical and contemporary alike, it’s not uncommon to come across Wikipedia articles with no portrait attached. Subconsciously, those figures may register as less significant and worth remembering: research indicates that images on Wikipedia are critical to readers’ interest and engagement. The subjects of portraits, whether paintings or photographs, tend to be people who have commanded wealth and power, and our collective knowledge has reflected those biases. Nevertheless, these social realities don’t foreclose the possibility for us to make a needed intervention into the archive.
Wikimedia Foundation is working together with Afro Free Culture Crowdsourcing Wikimedia (AfroCROWD) on Wiki Unseen. AfroCROWD was started by Wikimedia volunteers in 2015 to raise awareness around people of African descent who participate in Wikipedia’s mission of free knowledge. They have identified 20 biographical articles for which they would like to remedy a current lack of images.
The project’s first push will commission illustrations from Ghanaian artist Enam Bosokah, Trinidadian artist Esther Griffith, and New York City-based artist Bukhtawar Malik. Figures whose Wikipedia entries will soon be freshly accompanied by portraits include: William Greaves, a New York City documentary filmmaker who explored Black political and cultural life in his films; Marian Ewurama Addy, a Ghanaian biochemist who researched the biochemistry of traditional medical herbal medicine; and May Miller, a widely published female playwright and poet of the Harlem Renaissance.
Watercolor artwork by Esther Griffith already graces the pages of Jamaican astrophysics professor Mercedes Richards and Asquith Xavier, whose efforts to become the first non-white train guard at British Railways helped desegregate the state-owned company. The multicolored facial representations are based on photographic research.
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the skewed demographics of Wikipedia editors. Editors of the site remain dominantly white, cisgender males, disproportionately geographically concentrated in the global North. In 2015, James Hare, president of Wikimedia DC, told the New York Times, “The stereotype of a Wikipedia editor is a 30-year-old white man, and so most of the articles written are about stuff that interests 30-year-old white men…So a lot of black history is left out.”
There are over 30 articles that belong to the “African royalty” category on English Wikipedia, for instance, and only three of them have portraits. That’s a dismal ratio that certainly does not describe visual representation for American presidents or the British monarchy.
But a number of efforts, including Wiki Unseen, have been set in motion to counteract these occlusions. Grassroots edit-a-thons are often organized around themes like Black history and women’s history, and encourage the participation and training of new editors. And in 2021, the Wikimedia Foundation announced a $4.5 million “equity fund” supporting researchers and journalists in underrepresented communities, to build knowledge in various fields.
“Wiki Unseen aims to make Black histories and those of people underrepresented on Wikipedia more visible,” said Anusha Alikhan, vice president of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation, in a statement. “Closing knowledge equity gaps — including visual ones — is key to ensuring Wikimedia projects are accessible to everyone and represent the breadth of global cultures, experiences, and languages. We know that our work is incomplete until the full diversity of our world’s histories is seen.”