Surprisingly, the controversy has nothing to do with politics.
When Chris Devins, an artist and urban planner from Chicago, painted a mural of former First Lady Michelle Obama across the street from the elementary school that she once attended, it seemed like a fail-safe place to put the work of art—except there were much bigger things at play. Controversy over the piece began hours after Devins had finished the mural and posted it online, but the outrage wasn’t politically-motivated.
The image is actually the work of Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian woman studying art in New York City. She initially created and posted the piece, which is a digital drawing she did over an original photo by Collier Schorr, on Instagram just before the 2016 election. Devins later said that he found her image on Pinterest but had no idea who had drawn the original. When Mesfin found out about the mural, which Devins raised nearly $12,000 on a GoFundMe page for, she was outraged at what she calls an act of artistic plagiarism.
“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… it’s one thing to share or even profit from someone’s work but to claim it as yours is just wrong!” she said on Instagram.
When Devins first spoke with DNA Info about his work, he didn’t exactly let on that he had discovered the image online. In fact, in his interview, he seems to suggest that the art was original.
“I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate,” Devins told DNA Info.
Since Devins told the Washington Post that he has been painting and posting murals based on “found images” for more than two years around Chicago, most of them depicting black figures connected to the city in some way, he should be familiar with the process of crediting other people. He has since fervently apologized for the mix-up and has been careful to credit Mesfin when posting about the work. The two seem to have reconciled the issue, according to statements from both of them, and Devins said that he is glad because he wants to keep the mural up.
“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,” he said in a statement. “She has accepted my extended hand of friendship and collaboration.”
Mesfin has thanked her supporters on Instagram for notifying her of the article that reported on Devins’ mural and for spreading the word that she did not approve of her artwork being used by someone else. Devins apparently offered to pay her a licensing fee and negotiated with an attorney that Mesfin hired for the issue, and Mesfin said that she hopes that Devins will only be met with love from now on.
“I only ask that everyone keep this positive towards him; I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind,” she said in a statement to her followers.
The community seems to enjoy the mural, despite the controversy surrounding it, as it is a message of hope for the young children that see it everyday that seems to say that dreams can come true if you work hard and with poise and grace.