The idea is great, the execution was of quality, but there is only one problem: The image of former First Lady Michelle Obama in a South Side Chicago mural was stolen from another artist.
If that isn’t bad enough, Chicago artist and urban planner Chris Devins—who said on Twitter that his dad is Irish and his mom is “100% black,” and who apparently stole the image of Obama depicted as an Egyptian Queen from black artist Gelila Lila Mesfin—raised nearly $12,000 in crowdfunding for the project.
Devins finished the mural on Friday and quickly began to get media coverage over the initiative, which seemed like a positive thing since it’s located across from a school and near Obama’s childhood home. But by Saturday morning, social media users and people familiar with Mesfin’s stunning work began to call Devins out.
In Devin’s initial comments about the mural on Friday, he clearly tried to take credit for the painting.
“I wanted to present her [Obama] as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate,” he said, according to DNAinfo.
But nothing gets by internet sleuths, and by Saturday Devins was being forced to acknowledge the grift. His first reaction was to claim the mural was “inspired” by something he found on the internet. Because his was a nonprofit project, apparently respecting the rights of other artists goes out the window.
Next he at least acknowledged Mesfin’s role in…CREATING THE IMAGE…but didn’t really apologize or come clean as to what he had actually done.
Then he started deleting tweets.
Mesfin, who goes by thick_east_african_girl on Instagram (check out her work, it’s amazing), was understandably upset with the developments. Because everyone knows how easy it is to make a living as an artist in the United States—particularly a black female artist born in Ethiopia.
She reacted on Instagram:
How can you just steal someone’s artwork...someone’s hard work and claim it like it’s yours...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!
So what should Devins’ punishment be? Give the donated money back? Give the $12,000 to Mesfin? Apologize? Let’s start with the latter and work our way to the former.
Update: DNAinfo reports that Devins reached out to Mesfin to offer her a licensing fee, and that, “we did not intend to claim authorship, only inspiration.”
Update 2: Devins responded Saturday with a couple of tweets, one suggesting that the original photographer of the image Mesfin used be acknowledged. Another tweet states: “To the racists who keep accusing me of being ‘white’ lol. Well, my Dad is Irish, but Mom is 100% Black. You know the ‘one-drop’ rules...”
The original post described Devins as white, but based on this tweet we have changed that.