An Ethiopian art student says talks of a collaboration and a friendship between her and another artist are untrue after accusations of plagiarism arose over her image of Michelle Obama as an Egyptian queen.
Chris Devins, who calls himself an urban planner/artist, raised $12,000 on GoFundMe to paint an image of the former first lady on a building across the street from Bouchet Elementary, where Obama attended in the 1970s. The same day Devins’ painting was completed, Ethiopian artist and college student Gelila Mesfin was alerted to the image by her social media followers.
Devins’ work is nearly identical to the image she made of Obama in November.
Alternative color scheme @michelleobama ?? Original photo – Collier Schorr . . #nubian #blackart #digitaldrawing #phontart #supportblackart #art #illustration #drawing #draw #TagsForLikes #picture #artist #sketch #artsy #instaart #beautiful #instagood #gallery #masterpiece #creative #photooftheday #instaartist #graphic #graphics #artoftheday #phoneart #supportblackart #melanin #African #blackartist #dopeblackart
Several people posted about the plagiarism online.
He even ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money, all the while claiming to have designed it.
— The People's Oracle (@PeoplesOracle) April 22, 2017
— Mood: Maxine Waters (@Quemini) April 22, 2017
.@LeagueOfExtra when you fundraised thousands of $ to plagiarize your mural of Michelle Obama, did you think no one would figure it out?
— Eduardo García (@itseddie) April 24, 2017
“How can you just steal … someone’s hard work and claim it like it’s yours?” Mesfin wrote on Instagram Friday, April 21. “How can you go on record and say you designed this… this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels… like this man seriously created a GoFundMe page, raised money and did this… it’s one thing to share or even profit from someone’s work but to claim it as yours is just wrong!”
A day later, Mesfin said she had been in touch with Devins to settle the issue “in an applicable and professional manner.”
“I only ask that everyone keep this positive towards him,” she said. “I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind.”
Devins told CNN Wednesday he hasn’t directly addressed Mesfin about the controversy and he is negotiating with her lawyer and offered to pay a licensing fee.
Devins has now credited Mesfin for her contributions to the image, which was a derivative of a photo shot by Collier Schorr for The New York Times’ Style Magazine.
Design by Galila Mesfin Original image by Collier Schoor
Placemaking and Mural Execution by Chris Devins
Ladies, be all you can be! pic.twitter.com/Ahk2KsLhqk
— Chris Devins (@LeagueOfExtra) April 25, 2017
He also issued a statement acknowledging Mesfin’s role in the design while touting his “placemaking and mural execution skills.”
— Chris Devins (@LeagueOfExtra) April 25, 2017
However, Mesfin told DNAinfo Thursday, April 27 that Devins’ statement that she “accepted [his] extended hand of friendship and collaboration” is untrue.
“He released something saying I agreed to collaborate with him and that I’ve extended a hand in friendship, which is also false,” Mesfin said. “Because one, me and him have never communicated directly. Secondly, if this was a collaboration, I would’ve known about it.”
Many have supported Mesfin since news of the controversy broke, including one woman who established a GoFundMe for her.
Devins told the website he plans to donate to the fundraiser, which Mesfin said he had not informed her about.
“It’s really hard to move forward with this when he keeps changing his mind and attacking my character, and overall it has been stressful and hurtful,” Mesfin said, referring to an update on Devins’ GoFundMe page where he said, “If you want to go there, the so-called ‘original’ is ‘stolen’ from photographer Collier Schorr.”
Devins confessed his execution of the project was “sloppy” but said he didn’t paint the Obama mural as an artist.
“I am an urban planner/artist,” he told DNAinfo. “If the images are original, as with Hyde Park Heroes, I am acting as an artist. If the images belong to the public domain or someone else, I am working as a placemaker, presenting the work of someone else. The goal is always the same, the images must re-affirm the identity of the community.”
“When I said I wanted to depict Mrs. Obama as Egyptian, I meant it, but I meant in my capacity as a placemaker, meaning I am presenting images by someone else, often from multiple sources,” he said.
I knew that I wanted to depict Mrs. Obama as a Queen and I noticed a resemblance between her and Queen Tiye of Egypt so I began thinking.. pic.twitter.com/l6TJ98d1J1
— Chris Devins (@LeagueOfExtra) April 28, 2017
“My original idea came when I noticed Mrs. Obama looked like Queen Tiye of Egypt,” Devins claimed. “I had morphed the face of Mrs. Obama into the statue. That’s when the unattributed image popped up on Pinterest. It felt softer, more feminine. I searched and searched and could not find the source. I proceeded and figured the artist would emerge and I would just pay them a licensing fee. I didn’t know it would be so soon and that they would be so upset. My idea to make her a Queen of Egypt was true and preceded Ms. Mesfin’s image.”