Michelle Obama mural plagiarism shrugged off as 'artistic remix'

An artist raised ā‚¬11,000 to create an image of the former First Lady, without asking the image's original creator

Michelle Obama mural plagiarism shrugged off as 'artistic remix'


A street art mural of former US First Lady Michelle Obama has become a sticking point between two artists, with one claiming her original was exploited and the other claiming his is a “remix.”

Chris Devins, an artist and urban planner, was inundated with criticism over his recently unveiled image of Michelle Obama in the style of an Egyptian queen in Chicago’s South Shore. Having raised $12,000 (€11,000) for the project on the crowd-sourcing website GoFundMe, it emerged that an Ethiopian-born Instagram artist had actually created the image.

Speaking to Chicago news site DNAinfo after the mural was unveiled on the walls of an apartment building, Devins said: “I wanted to present [Michelle Obama] as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate.”

Fit for a queen

In the GoFundMe post, the image originally showed a black-and-white photo of the former First Lady, with Devins saying he hoped to display the artwork on the walls of Bouchet Elementary, the school Obama attended as a child.

But the finished mural, which took five days to complete, shows a photograph of Michelle Obama overlayed with a green-and-gold headdress and earrings. That image was created by Gelila Mesfin, who posted it on her Instagram account last November.

When news that her work had been splashed on a Chicago wall without being attributed to her or without her permission, Mesfin, who posts as @Thick_East_African_Girl, was critical of Devins’ failure to cite his source.

“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!” Mesfin wrote on Instagram.

'After-the-fact collaboration'

Responding to the controversy, Devins said that he had stumbled on Mesfin’s work on Pinterest, adding that the image had been posted there without any attribution to its creator. Explaining his reason for using the image without seeking the artist’s blessing, Devins claimed his version was akin to a “remix” of an artwork the way DJs remix songs.

After an online backlash, Devins made several statements credited Mesfin for her work, telling The Washington Post, “I consider it to be collaboration after the fact.” Devins also said that Mesfin’s Instagram work may have benefitted from “hundreds of thousands of dollars of free publicity” from the media storm surrounding their “collaboration.”

Mesfin disagreed, saying that her art is posted on Instagram for free and is not for sale. She said her intention was to showcase noteworthy black women in a “beautiful light,” showing off the rich cultural heritage of Africa.

“I understand why he did it. At the same time, I was just surprised,” Mesfin said. “It would have been fine if he had just said that he got it from me.”

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