As It Happens

Chicago man raises $11.7K for Michelle Obama mural he copied from Ethiopian art student

A Chicago man is defending his Michelle Obama mural as found art, but this Ethiopian art student says it originated on her Instagram page.
This portrait of Michelle Obama as an Egyptian queen was painted by Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian art student in New York. (@thick_east_african_girl/Instagram)

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When Gelila Mesfin first saw that her portrait of Michelle Obama had been made into a mural on Chicago's south side, she was flattered.

"I thought it was pretty cool. I didn't know anyone had taken credit for it. I figured someone was just inspired and put it up there," Mesfin, a New York art student from Ethiopia, told As It Happens host Carol Off.  "It was kinda cool to see your art work displayed in such a huge manner."

The mural of Obama decked out as an Egyptian queen was unveiled Friday two blocks from the former first lady's childhood home.

It bears a striking resemblance to a digital portrait that Mesfin made and shared on her own Instagram account in October 2016, based on a photograph by the New York Times' Collier Schorr, whom Mesfin credits in her post.

"I just wanted to portray her as a queen," Mesfin said. "She was just such a class act and she inspired a lot of black women, black girls, and women in general to be strong, be educated and to stand their ground, and you know, to fight for what they love."

But her feelings of flattery quickly wore off when she read an article about the mural on the website DNA Info, in which the man who painted it appears to take credit for the concept.

"I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she's clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate," Chris Devins, a city planner known for his Chicago portrait-style murals, told DNA Info on Friday.

What's more, she learned Devins had crowdfunded more than $11,700 US to make the mural, and offered up signed prints to donors.

"I realized that, 'Wait a minute, this person is not giving me credit,'" Mesfin said. "I was very disheartened and I just felt like it was disrespectful."

So Mesfin went back on Instagram to call Devins out. "How can you just steal someone's artwork," she wrote in a post that has since been liked more than 5,000 times. 

In an emailed statement to As It Happens, Devins said he found the image on Pinterest, but was unable to track down the orginal artist. He says he credited Mesfin as soon as he learned the work was hers.

"The final project was completed in April 2017, and was made possible by Mesfin's artistry and my urban planning skills. I had no idea who the image belonged to and like many of us who take an image and post it on a blog, or on our social media pages, I was unaware of the implications of my act.  I will slow down and be more careful next time," Devins said. 

"Most importantly, I was unaware of the creator and so did not know that Ms. Mesfin was a woman. I want to avoid unintentionally perpetuating misogyny or male domination of any kind. For me, this is a time for learning and self-reflection, not justification."​

He is now working with Mesfin's lawyer to hammer out a licensing fee. 

On GoFundMe, Devins wrote that controversy around the mural has given Mesfin "$100,000's in free publicity."

But Mesfin says it's not about that. 

"I don't know how he would think that I'm making money in this situation. Did I get followers? Did I get people reaching out to me because of this whole situation? Of course I did. Like, that's pretty obvious, and all this media attention, of course, in a way I was promoted," she said.

"But it wasn't because I was trying to get promoted, it was because I was shedding light on an injustice that was done to me as an artist."


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