Rabat – Michelle Obama is stirring controversy but not of the political kind. The recent unveiling of a public mural on a building in Chicago, depicting the former First Lady as an Egyptian queen, has inspired vigorous argument on social media over copyright in the public domain.
Self-described urban planner and artist, Chris Devins, completed his mural last Friday. Reaction to it on social media was virtually instant as many realized they had seen the image somewhere before.
Social media users on Instagram accused Devins of copying the work of another artist, Gelila Mesfin. Her tribute to Michelle Obama was posted on her Instagram account back in November of last year. Looking at the images side-by-side, the confusion is understandable. The two are virtually identical.
Mesfin’s reaction to the Devins mural on Saturday expressed her surprise and disappointment. “How can you just steal someone’s artwork… someone’s hard work and claim it like it’s yours…” she posted, adding “How can you go on record and say you designed this… this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels… It’s one thing to share or even profit from someone’s work but to claim it as yours is just wrong!”
Devins, however, is insisting he’s done nothing wrong or unethical. In an interview with CNN, the artist said, “I credited Ms. Mesfin for her work immediately. I’ve taken the heat and will gladly do so as long as the kids have a mural they can look up to.”
According to Devins, the idea for the work came from an image he saw on Pinterest. At the time, he was unaware of where the image came from, but it inspired him to create “… a mural that would serve as an inspiration for the young ladies on Chicago’s South Side and young ladies everywhere.” The site he chose for the work is a building across the street from an elementary school Michelle Obama attended as a child on Chicago’s south side.
To aid in the completion of his homage, Devins raised $12,000 through a GoFundMe account, the source of further controversy. In a statement he issued, the artist is unapologetic but reflective. “For me, this is a time for learning and self-reflection, not justification. Though I did not receive any funds based on Ms. Mesfin’s work, I was granted money based on a socially responsible message about Black women. She has accepted my extended hand of friendship and collaboration.”
So, while controversy swirls around the two artists, they are working to clear the situation up in a peaceful, professional manner. Mesfin has taken to her social media accounts to encourage her supporters to be respectful and positive in their reactions to the situation. “I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind,” she said.