Chicago Muralist Under Fire After Stealing A Michelle Obama Image From A Black Artist

April 24, 2017  |  

If you’re a Black person on the internet, chances are you’ve stumbled across Geila Lila Mesfin’s work. You may not recognize her name but she’s an artist who, in addition to sketching, painting etc, digitally draws images of famous Black women and refashions them in traditional African or African-inspired garb.

Like this

or this

In October 2016, Mesfin, who goes by the name @thick_east_african_girl on Instagram, digitally re-imagined this image of our former First Lady, placing her in an Egyptian-inspired headpiece. And the result was stunning.

The series of posts garnered 68 thousand views and over 7,000 likes. But what Mesfin didn’t know was that her work would reach and entirely new audience when Chicago artist and urban planner Chris Devins not only found Mesfin’s work, he passed off as his own, and created a mural of the image in Chicago, just blocks away from the former First Lady’s childhood home.

According to Okayplayer, the project began in November of last year when Devins created a GoFundMe page in order to finance the project. His goal was to raise $,9,900 and he ended up earning $11,785.

When Devins originally pitched the project, he used a photograph of Michelle Obama. But by the time it actually came to fruition, it was Mesfin’s image. Problem is Devins never gave credit to her for her work. And he didn’t say, “I haven’t been able to locate the original artist,” he attempted to pass the work off as his own.

In an interview with DNA Info he said, “I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate.”

I’m sure you see the problem here. What he should have said was, I liked the way this artist protrayed her. His use of “I” would lead anyone to believe that he was the original creator. And that’s a lie and a particularly heinous one for a fellow artist.

When Mesfin learned of the news, she responded with this note on Instagram.

View this post 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! Thank you to those who DM and messaged me to let me know what was going on @dnainfochi you guys should take this article down because this man stole this. 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! The man is a teacher for God's sake and said he was doing this to create positivity for his students and community… but he didn't think that stealing a young girl's artwork and making a profit out of it does more damage than good.

A post shared by G (@thick_east_african_girl) on

After several people confronted Devins about his theft of Mesfin’s work, he issued a couple of responses on Twitter, which have since been deleted.

“Our non profit urban planning projects often include paintings inspired by found images. Thank you east african girl.”

“Thank you Geila Lila Mesfin As placemakers, we are truly inspired…”

“We only found out her name now. It was sloppy. Now people are just being mean.”

God only knows what people were saying to Chris. I know there were likely people who took it a bit too far. But I’m also sure he deserved some of it. Whatever was said, it obviously had him on the defensive because he added an update to the GoFundMe post:

“Um. People . If you want to go there, the so called “original” is “stolen” from photographer Collier Schorr.

[link to the original image]

The broader conversation is one about authorship in the re-mix culture we live in. and this hate coming from people who listen to music that is entirely sampled from other peoples original music.
All this hate on a broader effort at community improvement.”

Yes, Mesfin’s digital drawing is based on a photo taken by another artist, a photographer. But if you watch the videos on her Instagram page, it’s very clear that she is digitally altering an existing image. And that is drastically different than presenting a finished work as your own. Furthermore, as Devins is clearly the one in the wrong in this instance, his posture is a bit off. Instead of attempting to share the fault with Mesfin, he should be seeking to apologize and make amends. The comments he’s made since being exposed seem to speak more to his attitude of defense rather than remorse.

As for Mesfin, she’s taking the high road and encouraging her supporters not to attack Devins.

It’ll be interesting to see how they work this out.

Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @VDubShrug.

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