Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian art student in New York, had long admired Michelle Obama — her grace, her stoicism, and perhaps more than anything, her influence as a role model for black women.
So last year, as a tribute to the first lady, Mesfin drew a digital portrait depicting Obama in a gold and green Egyptian headdress. She uploaded the image to her Instagram account with the caption, “Forever Queen.”
That was in November, just before the 2016 election.
On Friday, more than five months later, an almost identical version of Mesfin’s work showed up as a mural on a building on Chicago’s South Side, just blocks from where Obama grew up.
No one had contacted Mesfin about the mural. Nor had anyone credited her.
That might not have been a problem for the 24-year-old, who said she said she was initially flattered that a stranger hundreds of miles away had turned her image into a piece of public art.
But the person who painted the mural, artist and urban planner Chris Devins, appeared to have profited from the project, raising nearly $12,000 on a GoFundMe page. He also suggested to local media the depiction of Obama was his idea.
“I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen,” Devins told DNAinfo on Friday. “I thought that was appropriate.”
Devins’s mural had only been up for a matter of hours when word got back to Mesfin. She objected to the use of her work without permission in a widely circulated Instagram post that triggered a wave of outrage online, saying she felt like Devins stole her piece.
“I was very disheartened when he did that,” Mesfin told The Washington Post. “There’s a common code among all artists that you can get inspired by someone’s work but you have to pay homage and you have to give credit for it.”
Now, Mesfin and Devins said they’re negotiating a resolution to the dispute. The details are confidential, they said, but Mesfin told The Post she has sought help from an attorney.
Devins said he never intended to take credit for Mesfin’s creation, which itself was based off a portrait in the New York Times by photographer Collier Schorr. Mesfin credited Schorr’s work on her Instagram post.
In an interview with The Post, Devins said he has been painting murals around Chicago for more than two years. Most of them depict well known black figures who are connected to the city in some way, among them Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. For the most part, he said, he bases the murals on “found” images and public domain pictures he finds in the Library of Congress or Wikimedia Commons.
Devins said he makes little to no money off the installations, which he said he paints to “reaffirm the identity” of the surrounding community.
“This is a free service that I do as a benefit for Chicago youth as a counter to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ portrayal of Chicago’s South Side,” he said.
In November, Devins started a GoFundMe seeking to raise at least $5,000 to paint a mural of the first lady on Bouchet Elementary, which Obama attended as a youth.
The fundraising page showed a black and white portrait of Obama with folded arms, nothing like Mesfin’s rendering.
But after raising $11,785, it was Mesfin’s work that wound up on a wall — not on the school, but a beige brick apartment building nearby.
Devins said he came across Mesfin’s drawing on the sharing site Pinterest and was unable to track down the artist. He explained his decision to use the image without permission in an analogy, saying he was creating a “remix” of a piece of art in the way that a DJ remixes songs.
All of the money, he said, went to the cost of painting the mural.
“I didn’t find out until she complained online that it was her image,” Devins said. “That’s why I didn’t give her any credit.”
After receiving backlash on social media, Devins apologized to Mesfin and issued multiple statements saying the work was hers. It did little to quell the anger among some users, who accused Devins, who is black, of racism, sexism and outright theft for using a young black woman’s art for his own purposes.
Though he was apologetic, Devins said he resented that he was “accused of being mannish.”
“I moved ahead. I consider it to be collaboration after the fact,” he told The Post. He speculated that Mesfin may have “gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars of free publicity” from the attention generated by the dispute.
Mesfin had a different take. For one, she told The Post, she makes no money off her art, nor does she seek to. Her Instagram feed is full of images like the Obama portrait, showing black female icons — Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé — in brightly colored African garb that Mesfin has drawn onto existing photographs. They are not for sale.
Her depiction of Obama was inspired in part by her love of Egyptian culture. The idea of first lady in a headdress popped into her head as soon as she came across the Collier Schorr portrait, which ran in the New York Times in October, she said. Collier’s studio didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Mesfin said the goal of much of her art is to show the “rich heritage” of black women by portraying them in a “beautiful light.” When she uses another photographer’s work, she said, she goes out of her way to give credit.
“It’s just showing appreciation,” she said. “If you’re going to do something like this, it’s a common courtesy.”
Mesfin has called on her followers not to insult Devins while the two of them work out a resolution.
“I understand why he did it. At the same time, I was just surprised,” she said. “It would have been fine if he had just said that he got it from me.”
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