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On Nov. 4, 2016, artist Gelila Lila Mesfin posted a digital drawing she created on Instagram of Michelle Obama as an emerald-clad Egyptian queen.
Fast forward to April 2017, when a strikingly similar, if not identical, image was mounted as a mural in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood ― just two blocks from the former first lady’s childhood home. Chicago-based artist and urban planner Chris Devins installed the piece, presumed to be his own, after raising $11,785 on GoFundMe.
“The purpose of this mural,” Devins wrote, “is to give today’s children someone they can literally look up to and to celebrate Mrs. Obama’s life and accomplishments during the last 8 years as First Lady of the United States.”
Devins launched his crowdsourcing campaign on Nov. 8, 2016, just days after Mesfin posted her image. Yet Devins never acknowledged whether or not Mesfin provided the source image for his outdoor mural or served as any sort of inspiration for his work.
In an interview with DNA Info, published on April 21, Devins described the reasoning behind his portrait of Ms. Obama, making no mention of Mesfin or her work. “I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen,” Devins said. “I thought that was appropriate.”
It wasn’t long before Mesfin’s DMs were filled with links to Devins’ story on DNA Info, from others who recognized Devins’ alleged artwork as hers. Mesfin expressed her disappointment in a statement published on Instagram.
“I wouldn’t mind if he had given me credit or said he took the design from another artist but saying you designed it is just wrong!” she said. “The man is a teacher for God’s sake and said he was doing this to create positivity for his students and community... but he didn’t think that stealing a young girl’s artwork and making a profit out of it does more damage than good.”
On Friday, Devins emailed DNA Info responding to the claims of plagiarism, admitting: “It was sloppy.” The artist explained that he encountered Mesfin’s image on Pinterest and was influenced by her work, which he described as a “found image.”
“We were blown away by a wonderful image we stumbled on,” Devins said, “and only found out after the fact who the source of our inspiration was. We in no way meant to [infringe] on anyone’s creativity.”
The artist also expressed that he’d reached out to Mesfin to offer her a licensing fee, though he did not disclose the amount.
Devins also posted a less gracious message on GoFundMe yesterday, calling out Mesfin for her use of Collier Schorr’s photograph of Obama as source material. “Um. People,” he said, linking to Schorr’s portrait as it appeared in The New York Times. “If you want to go there, the so called ‘original’ is ‘stolen’ from photographer Collier Schorr. The broader conversation is one about authorship in the re-mix culture we live in.”
In response, Mesfin posted another message on Instagram, in which she thanked her followers for their support and implored them to send only positive vibes Devins’ way.
“I preach love, not hate or anger of any kind,” she wrote. Talk about taking the high road.
Hopefully Mesfin receives the compensation and credit she’s due. And, to all the artists-slash-urban-planners of the world: Don’t rip off the work of emerging artists, especially young women of color, because the Internet has a way of uncovering these shady endeavors.