Displayed for all to see on East 74th Street in the Obamas' former town of Chicago is a new mural of former first lady Michelle Obama, which has whipped up a tremendous amount of controversy, with its creator Chris Devins facing accusations of plagiarism. Specifically, the claims are that he copied the image from an Instagram post by Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian art student, and failed to credit her.
As detailed by CBS News, Mesfin posted a basically identical image to the one Devins painted on the side of a Chicago building back on Nov. 4, 2016. A side-by-side comparison lays bare just how similar the two works are. In short, there's absolutely no denying that one came from the other.
Showing Obama dressed in the manner of an Egyptian queen, the image is undeniably eye-catching and quite beautiful, and it's not at all surprising that someone who found it would have felt inspired to put it to use. But initially, at least, Devins failed to acknowledge that he's appropriated it from Mesfin, and that sparked an understandable level of outrage.
For the record, Mesfin's work was itself based on a photo of Obama by Collier Schorr of the New York Times ― a fact she clearly, unambiguously stated in her initial Instagram post.
Devins, for his part, doesn't deny that the work was originally hers ― he told CNN that he didn't know who the artist was the first time he saw the image, and has credited Mesfin since learning of her Instagram post.
I credited Ms. Mesfin for her work immediately. I've taken the heat and will gladly do so as long as the kids have a mural they can look up to.
On Instagram, Mesfin released a statement making it clear that she's communicating with Devins about the matter. She also thanked her followers, and urged them to "keep this positive towards him."
I have been in contact with Chris Devins in hopes of resolving this issue in an applicable and professional manner and from my Instagram family, I only ask that everyone keep this positive towards him; I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind.
Devins has said that he'll pay Mesfin something for her work, despite the fact that he believes she has no credible claim on copyright infringement, according to DNAinfo.
Her work is itself considered a derivative work of the original photographer. She herself appropriated Ms. Schoor's image and ‘digitally painted’ over it. You can’t appropriate a bike then sue someone for riding it.
It's a shame that so much controversy and hostility has cropped up around this, because it really is an impressive image, and one that'll be striking and evocative for anybody who sees it.
But under any circumstances ― and especially when you're talking about an image of one of the most famous and admired black women on Earth, beautifully artistically rendered by another black woman ― failing to give proper credit is an inflammatory act and a big problem. Hopefully both sides can reach some sort of reconciliation, so that the mural isn't tainted by this controversy.